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Turkey is a crucial ally. To snub it is sheer folly 28 mars 2011

Posted by Acturca in France, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The Times (UK), 28 March 2011, p. 20

Jack Straw *

As the coalition takes stock of the Libya operation, it must use Ankara’s growing influence. Turks do not appreciate insouciance. Nicolas Sarkozy’s one visit as President of France to Turkey lasted five hours. It was the first by a French president in 20 years. Nonetheless the French went out of their way to emphasise that their elected monarch had only dropped by in his capacity as president of the G20, not on a bilateral visit.

As he came down the steps of the presidential plane, Mr Sarkozy was spotted chewing gum — a compliment returned by the Mayor of Ankara’s pointedly masticating as he waved an official goodbye those five hours later.

I return today from a five-day visit to Turkey. It is hard to exaggerate the irritation, verging on despair, that Turks of all political persuasions now feel towards the French. In 2005 President Chirac made the courageous decision, in long-term French interests, to back the EU’s decision to begin formal accession negotiations with Turkey (after a wait of forty-plus years). Agreement without Mr Chirac would have been impossible.

Mr Sarkozy has reversed that approach and has been blocking negotiations on five chapters of Turkey’s accession treaty. Locked in intense competition with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, he has presided over an open season of rhetoric hostile to Islam in general and to Turkey in particular.

What has pushed Franco-Turkish relations even deeper into the pit has been Mr Sarkozy’s decision to « forget » to invite Turkey to the meeting in Paris on Saturday, March 19, called after the passing of UN Security Council resolution 1973 authorising military action against Libya, to co-ordinate plans among the « coalition of the willing ».

France’s explanation was that Turkey’s presence would have made agreement more difficult, in circumstances that required fast, clear decisions to halt Colonel Gaddafi’s industrial slaughter of his own people as quickly as possible. The response in Ankara has boiled down to the riposte: « Don’t judge others by your own standards. » Turkey, a founder member of Nato, has long suspected France of seeking to disrupt Nato’s structures.

A quick reading of Turkish newspapers on the day of the meeting would have told the French that, far from seeking to block any military coalition, Turkey was ready to participate in one. Under the headline « Turkish F16s ready », the daily Milliyet reported that Ankara had developed a « multichoice plan » for involvement « if Nato undertakes the UN-sponsored air operation ». A call to the Foreign Ministry would have elicited a credible explanation as to why the Ankara Government had to calibrate carefully its public statements early on in the crisis.

Britain too was cautious on what we said about Gaddafi until we had repatriated most of our citizens who wanted to leave. Turkey had reason to be even more careful — it has huge equity in Libya. With the second-largest international construction sector after China, it had $17 billion of projects in Libya, employing 25,000 Turkish workers. 22,000 of them are now safely home.

Turkey, with a population that is 98 per cent Muslim, did not want to be involved directly in air strikes. But it acknowledged the importance of the early French air strikes in preventing the fall of Benghazi, has offered significant naval support and has agreed to Nato command and control of all military operations.

Good relations with Turkey have been a high priority for the UK for years — as David Cameron and William Hague have emphasised since taking office. Amnesia has not infected the Foreign Office. Turkey has been invited to tomorrow’s Libya summit in London; its Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, will be there.

The immediate purpose of this meeting is to take stock of the implementation of resolution 1973 and to decide what action is needed to protect Libyan civilians from murderous attack. British ministers and diplomats will have been working intensively to « pre-cook » the outcome and to isolate any points of contention.

How the meeting appears to the outside world is one important « key deliverable », with the active participation of the Arab League, the African Union and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference giving the lie to Gaddafi’s claim that the action against him is some « Western crusade ». This runs into the US preoccupation that Nato and recognised regional groups are in the front line, not them.

However, the meeting will only be of lasting value if it agrees on a way to continue discussion on the economic, cultural and political reconstruction of Libya, and on the implications of the Arab Spring across the whole region. Just as after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no certainty that the turmoil will have a benign conclusion, and how the outside world acts could be crucial.

In all of this Turkey has a profoundly important role. It is fast becoming the regional power. It has enjoyed double-digit growth over the past decade. In another decade its economy will be bigger than that of Canada, Spain or Italy. It is Europe’s largest producer of TVs, buses and white goods. Not least to hedge its bets, given the paralysis of the EU negotiations, it has been reducing its dependence on European markets. The EU took two thirds of its exports in 2005; now it is barely half — with much of the rest going to Asia and the wider Middle East.

Turkey has influence in the Arab world that cannot be matched by any European power or the US. Crucially, it defies the canard that democracy and Islam cannot coexist. And it is important not to forget that Turkey’s Armed Forces are the largest of any European member of Nato.

One of the few things that, bizarrely, was agreed during President Sarkozy’s fleeting February visit was that he would make a state visit to Turkey this year. It is not clear whether gum will be the final course at the state banquet, but no one is holding their breath for much of an outcome if it does go ahead. But maybe by then France will have woken to a truth that it once knew — that Turkey matters.

* Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary 2001-06.

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