As EU vision fades, 'MEU vision' emerges among Turkey, neighbors
ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News | 6/11/2010 12:00:00 AM | Sevil KÜÇÜKKOŞUM
Increasing economic integration between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan has prompted visions of a new 'Middle East Union' to rival the European Union.
Increasing economic integration between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan has prompted visions of a new “Middle East Union” to rival the EU, but Turkish officials have taken pains to downplay the idea.
“It would be more accurate to call it a regional-cooperation model rather than a union,” diplomatic sources told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review on Friday. In describing what he has in mind, however, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu seems to be talking about something more than mere regional cooperation.
“From Kars in Turkey, to Morocco and Mauritania, from Sinop in Turkey to Sudan, from the Bosphorus to the Gulf of Aden, Turkish and Arab geographies own the most strategic belt in the world,” Davutoğlu said at the Turkish-Arab Cooperation Forum held Thursday in Istanbul, expanding on the idea of the current cooperation. “We want to turn it into a security and economic-integration belt.”
The foreign minister’s reference to a region ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Empire may reignite debate about whether the Turkish government is pursuing a policy of neo-Ottomanism and shifting its gaze away from its tradition Western orientation.
A change in foreign-policy direction was rejected by top members of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, on Friday, with Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Şahin saying there had been no change in the country’s policies and that “Turkey is not going anywhere.”
Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan have announced an agreement on integrating their economies through creating free-trade zones in a borderless region. The four countries have also agreed to set up a joint council for cooperation, which other countries may be able to join in the future.
“There are some other countries in the region planning to join this cooperation, but it is better for them to announce [their decisions] themselves,” diplomatic sources said.
This High-Level Quadruple Council will convene at the prime ministerial level every year, but ministers will collaborate more frequently, meeting four times a year under a rotating group president system. The mechanism is expected to enhance the economic cooperation between the countries. Turkey already has free-trade agreements with Syria and Jordan and negotiations for a trade agreement with Lebanon are being formulated.
The announcement of the new alliance came amid Turkey’s symbolic disengagement from Europe and the United States, demonstrated this week in its vote against the U.S.-backed sanctions on Iran. But Davutoğlu stressed that the zone of free movement of goods and people should not be considered an attempt to create an alternative to the European Union.
Experts drew attention to the fact that the AKP has implemented policies to boost economic ties with its neighbors and the Arab world since the party came to power in 2002.
“It will be beneficial for the global integration of these regional economies. Engagement of these countries with Turkey will serve not only the global economy but will also contribute to the stability in the region,” Güven Sak, the director of the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, or TEPAV, told the Daily News.
Turkey, a potential member of the EU with a strong interest in the direction of the European bloc, would not want to establish “a kind of a ‘Middle East Union. Turkey may merely be a gate for Western investment actors to enter the region,” Sak said.
“There will be more moves regarding economic affairs. Since Turkey’s economy is stronger, other countries will benefit more from this cooperation,” Muharrem Hilmi Özel, a Middle East expert for the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies, or TASAM, told the Daily News. “But stronger economic ties with Turkey will also provide these countries with a closer political proximity to Ankara.”
Since the AKP came to power, Turkey’s exports to its Muslim neighbors have increased sharply. Exports to non-Arabic Iran have grown 500 percent since 2002, while trade between Turkey and all 22 members of the Arab League has more than doubled over the past five years, reaching 24.7 billion euros annually. In 2009, Turkey exported $1.4 billion worth of goods to Syria and $690 million worth to Lebanon.