Turkey’s gate to Europe seeks share of border trade
Barçın Yinanç - email@example.comEdirne might be home to the world’s second busiest border gate, but the northwestern Turkish city feels it does not see a fair share of the benefits of cross-border trade activities, according to the local mayor.
“As people who are carrying the burden of living on the border, we would like to see more benefits,” said Mayor Recep Gürkan.
Tell us what it means for Edirne to be a city on the border.
We are the border between Turkey and Europe – the European Union. We are 3 kilometers from Greece and 17 kilometers from Bulgaria. This has positive as well as negative effects. Kapıkule is the world’s second biggest land border gate after the U.S.-Mexican border [between San Diego and Tijuana]. Some 2.5 million cars cross each year.
You hear news about the long queues of trucks at Kapıkule. People spend three or four days in those queues and they have all sorts of needs. Sometimes when Bulgaria slows down the procedures at customs, that wait gets even longer; we end up paying the bill for that. Edirne pays the cost of any disagreement between countries. And obviously we do not want to appear in the press with this negative news.
Another difficulty is that when there is a problem with Greece for instance, everyone turns to look at Edirne. But we are a city of peace.
We are used to respecting each other and are familiar with multiculturalism. We have been used to having several different faiths living with each other since Ottoman times. Twenty percent of Edirne’s population comes from different parts of Turkey, and yet we have no ghettos in the city.
That’s also why we have excellent relations with our Greek and Bulgarian neighbors. Spend a weekend in Edirne and you will see that half of the population in the border region of Greece and Bulgaria is in Edirne and half of Edirne is in Greece and Bulgaria.
Let’s talk about the economic dimension.
Our businesspeople have serious investments, especially in Bulgaria, and there is also some Bulgarian investment in Edirne. That is also starting with Greece, especially after the economic crisis. Greeks have seen that Turks are the real friends of Greeks; [Turks] have been the ones feeding Greek tourism. On long religious holidays, most of the hotels in Greece are filled by Turkish tourists.
That increases cross-cultural ties; when you go to restaurants in Greece, you see menus are also written in Turkish, for instance. That impacts people’s feelings.
But as people who are carrying the burden of living on the border, we would like to make more use of its benefits.
We want to increase cross-border cooperation activities specific to Edirne. In the 1990s, there used to be cross-border trade agreements; these used to have a direct impact on Edirne’s economy. Then they were annulled. We want them to be reinstated. We want the economic activities stemming from border trade to benefit Edirne as well. In short, we want a share. We want the trade mechanism to work for Edirne, too.
But for that, there needs to be incentives to encourage the business community; like tax advantages, insurance incentives and the like. These need to be arranged by the government.
Do you think Greece and Bulgaria also desire this?
Of course; this is a win-win model. Once governments find the formula, ask them and you will see that Greek and Bulgarian tradesmen will strongly support it.
Let’s talk about tourism; it seems Edirne’s potential is not being fulfilled thoroughly.
We do not benefit completely from the tourism potential. Greeks and Bulgarians come for shopping and that cannot be considered as tourism. Recently, there have been some tours organized from Greece’s Kavala and Thessaloniki, but they are too few to mention. And there is nothing of that sort from Bulgaria.
How come? There are so many historic and cultural riches in the city. There is a Bulgarian church; the city has Europe’s third biggest synagogue. How come Edirne has not succeeded in attracting more tourists?
The awareness is rather recent. The restoration of the synagogue finished in 2015. The Jews of Edirne who lived for hundreds of years in the city but later left are now coming back from time to time. Indeed we do have Bulgarian church with a priest who is a Bulgarian with Turkish citizenship. But Bulgaria is only recently recovering economically. They have not shown much interest until now. Greeks have seen the bottom in terms of the economic crisis, so tourism is not on their radar very much.
We have cooperation with certain municipalities in Bulgaria; we prepared four projects and they were accepted by the European Union, which will provide us a grant around 1 million euros through the IPA [Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance]. We want to do the same with Greece but they do not want to make use of IPA funds due to disagreements [concerning sovereignty rights] in the Aegean with Turkey.
We are living at a time when instead of opening borders, there is a tendency to close them due to migration flows. How does that affect Edirne?
We are affected psychologically. Right now, there is nothing physical, but to give you an example, two years ago nearly 25,000 migrants came to Edirne to cross the border and stayed here 15 days. That was very hard for us. We tried to show our traditional hospitality, but as they tried to cross, Bulgarian and Greek soldiers blocked the border.
The attitude of some Bulgarians during the March 26 elections in that country was not nice, even if they were nationalist Bulgarians, the effort to block Turks [with Bulgarian citizenship] who wanted to go to Bulgaria to cast their vote was not appropriate.
We would also be tremendously affected if a migration flow would start toward Europe as said by the government. Both Bulgaria and Greece will close the borders and all these people will be stranded here; there is no capacity in Edirne to cope with so many people. This will be a big crisis and that is a real concern for us.
Are you on the same page with your interlocutors in Bulgaria and Greece in terms of cross-border cooperation?
Absolutely; there is no difference among local authorities; we want more tourists to come; we want people to spend money and we all want to earn more. This is the view of all of us. If it were up to us; we would have people cross borders by just showing their identity cards. We want intensified trade, social and cultural relations. The problem is with governments; when there are problems among them; that has reflections on us as well.
Tell us why Edirne should be a tourist attraction when there is such a huge one close by like Istanbul?
You go to Istanbul and you have three days. You have 10 hours each day and at least one third of that time will be spent in traffic, which means you will return without seeing one third of the places you planned to visit. That’s our first advantage; we are two hours away from Istanbul and transportation in the city is easy.
Second, we are a peaceful city. Third, in such a small city, there are more than 1,000 historic [buildings or artifacts]. We have three rivers and this is one of the greenest cities in Turkey. We still have some work to do to revive Ottoman cuisine, but we have a good culinary culture. May is the month of festivals. On May 5, we have the Kakava festivities where Roma people have kept a 1,400-year-old tradition alive. In June we will have the 656th oil wrestling at Kırkpınar.
Who is Recep Gürkan?
Recep Gürkan was born in 1964 in İpsala, a town on the Turkish-Greek border. He graduated in 1983 from Trakya (Thrace) University’s Education Department in Edirne before receiving a subsequent degree in 2001 from Anadolu University’s Social Sciences Department in Eskişehir.
Between 1990 and 1995, he worked in trade unions that are active in the education sector.
Between 1998 and 2003, he worked in Edirne’s National Education Directorate.
In 2005 he was appointed as the general-secretary of Trakya University.
He resigned from the position before being elected in the 2011 general elections as a member of parliament representing Edirne for the Republican People’s Party (CHP). During his term in office, he served in parliament’s national education, culture, youth and sports commission.
Gürkan was elected as Edirne’s mayor for the CHP in local elections in March 2014.
He has also worked for the Edirne branches of several NGOs and won several awards during his tenure as mayor, with his most recent award coming for his contribution to the restoration of a historical electric plant in the province.