The question of US and EU support for Turkey
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently made a speech at Wilson Center titled “The U.S. and Europe: Strengthening Western Alliances.”
In it he reserved one section for Turkey. “We ask Turkey, as a NATO ally, to prioritize the common defense of its treaty allies. Iran – and Russia – cannot offer Turkish people the economic and political benefits that membership in the Western community of nations can provide,” he said.
The first sentence is a wish. It is normal that Tillerson should ask Turkey to prioritize the joint defense of NATO allies. But the second sentence is a judgment - an ambitious judgment at that, justifiable only by brushing aside everything that has happened in the last three or four years.
You might even agree with Tillerson if you limit your analysis to examining the relations between the EU and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) between 2002 and 2007, when meaningful progress was made in the Turkish economy and democratic institutions.
The positive contributions of the EU countries to Turkey’s foreign trade figures and the situation of foreign investors in Turkey also justify Tillerson’s statement.
But recent developments in Turkey-U.S. relations - as well as Turkish-EU-NATO relations – go some way to invalidating Tillerson’s comments. I can provide dozens of examples of the benefits that the U.S. and EU could bring (but currently do not) to the Turkish people.
In this column I will look at the tourism sector as just one illustration of recent tendencies. In Turkish tourism Russia is now top, followed by Germany and Iran, in terms of numbers of foreign visitors. Given that 1.5 million of those German tourists have Turkish origins, it is clear that second place actually belongs to Iran.
According to information from Mediterranean Touristic Hoteliers’ Association head Erkan Yağcı, organizer of the recent “7th International Resort Tourism Congress” in Antalya, the difference between the tourist figures in 2014 and 2015 and the figures in 2016 is 10 million.
Turkey lost $13 billion because of the decline in tourism in 2016.
Yağcı stated the reasons for decline on the graphic he used in his presentation: The ongoing Syrian crisis, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorist threat, the fallout from the Arab Spring and the jet-fighter crisis with Russia. Although the situation has now not changed too much, a recovery has begun.
Almost all the speakers, including Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmuş and Antalya Mayor Menderes Türel, stressed that the problem originated from circumstantial developments rather than failings in Antalya or any other touristic city in Turkey. In other words, political and diplomatic relations, together with perceptions abroad, have collectively created this outcome.
Before recent elections in Europe, some politicians told their citizens not to come to Turkey as it is unsafe. This, together with the decline in freedom of thought, speech and democracy in Turkey, has also contributed to this result.
Unfortunately, this negative image remains largely unchanged. Problems in our region and Turkey persist.
But despite all this, a serious recovery in tourism began in 2017. While tourism around the world grew by around 5 percent last year from the previous year, tourism in Turkey grew 28 percent (though the amount of tourists in Turkey is still 3 million less than in 2014 and 2015).
Turkish tourism seems to have been saved and a new page has been turned. But the West should not be thanked for this recovery. The vacuum left when Western tourists stopped coming is today being filled by Russians, Iranians and people from Middle Eastern countries.
Now it is the U.S., the EU and NATO’s turn to make a decision. Do they want to abandon Turkey, which has faced challenges as a frontline country for decades, to Russia? Or do they want to uphold the partnership by trying to contribute more to the development of human rights and democracy in the country?