Can Britain and Turkey shape Europe’s outreach through ‘sweet talk’?

Can Britain and Turkey shape Europe’s outreach through ‘sweet talk’?

In Turkish, “Tatlıdil” means sweet talk. After attending the 2nd annual Turkish-British Tatlıdil forum in Istanbul, my impression was that it had indeed gone beyond a supplement to sweetening bilateral relations. Launched in 2011 as an initiative of both governments, its main purpose lies in deepening bilateral relations beyond the official channels of government. The forum brings together intellectuals, businessmen, lawmakers, journalists, writers, diplomats and politicians from both sides, chaired by two former Foreign Ministers, Jack Straw and Yaşar Yakış.

Beyond the finer details of the issues discussed - such as innovative business models and obstacles to a coherent EU strategy towards Turkey - the forum seems to have found its purpose, as a means to emphasize the potential of the Turkish-British partnership to influence European outreach beyond Europe’s frontiers.

This complements Britain’s pioneering stance - in comparison with other EU countries – in tapping into the idea of reaching out to Asian and Middle Eastern markets through joint ventures with Turkish companies. It is also a reflection of Britain’s vision to see beyond the stagnating EU and the BRIC countries, to partnerships with countries with steady economic growth matched by growing regional influence, such as Turkey. For Turkey, while the United States remains its main strategic partner, it is also aware that the best partner in regional management is Britain, due to its distinct position in the EU regarding global outreach and its long standing experience of dealing beyond Europe and noticing where new opportunities to grow can be found.

It was evident to the participants at the forum that the EU’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize was down to its past achievements. The idea of Europe beyond Europe was emphasized by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who dwelled on the challenges placed on an inward-looking Europe by other regions with emerging markets, and stressed the inevitable fusion of European values with Asian and African ones. He stressed that both Turkey and Britain were well-placed to deal with this challenge because of their familiarity with these regions. Meanwhile, British Minister for Europe David Liddington complemented these remarks by saying that “European unity should not be measured by the barriers erected against the rest of the world” and that both Turkey and Britain were “European powers with a global outlook.”

Although the fusion of interests are undoubtedly there and it is these interests in “Europe beyond Europe” that give Tatlıdil its identity, there are nevertheless enduring difficulties in the Turkish-British partnership. As the Turkish leadership increasingly loses interest in the EU, given the numerous obstacles related to French, German and Cypriot objections and the several blocked chapters, a disgruntled Turkey visibly snubbing the EU does not make it easier for Britain to rally its support for the Turkish bid in Brussels. This was also evident with the publication of the European Commission’s annual progress report on Turkey, which was noted with little interest in Turkish circles in comparison to previous reports. It is indeed evident that Turkey’s relations with Europe should look beyond this narrow impasse of acceptance or rejection under the accession negotiations to a wider partnership on global strategic issues. However, this should by no means be an alternative to EU membership. That is why Britain’s unwavering support for Turkey’s EU membership is crucial to also keeping the channels open for wider cooperation on regional issues.

Perhaps Tatlıdil is the right forum to make sure we, on the Turkish side, do not lose sight of the U.K.’s efforts on behalf of Turkey. The other obstacle remains the intransigence of other EU states, whose aversion to Turkish entry is precisely shaped by the outdated inward-looking perspective that the EU suffers from. As Turkish Minister for Europe Egemen Bağış commented at the end of the forum: “British wisdom can understand what Turkey has to offer, but we want that wisdom to be contagious for the rest of Europe.” It seems that Britain has quite a task in front of it, but Turkey should be appreciative of its efforts.

Dr. Gülnur Aybet is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Kent, Britain, and a participant at the Turkish-British Tatlıdil Forum