REMARKS BY AMBASSADOR AHMET AKİF OKTAY AT THE OPENING OF THE PANEL “TURKEY-HUNGARY RELATIONS IN THE AXIS OF THE EUROPEAN UNION” National University of Public Service, 9 May 2019
A very good afternoon to all of you. It is a pleasure and honor for me to address you in this prestigious university.
At the outset, I would like to thank the Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies of NUPS on the Hungarian side, and the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research on the Turkish side, for jointly organizing this highly relevant panel.
I also want to thank the distinguished panelists, Doctors Enes Bayraklı, Zoltan Egeresi and Hasan Basri Yalçın for taking part in this debate, which promises to be interesting and informative.
On this occasion, I would first like to give my general assessment of the current state of Turkey-EU relations. In the second part, I will talk about Turkish-Hungarian relations as they stand today.
But first, let me offer a few thoughts on our complicated relationship with the EU.
As you all know, our accession process is basically at a standstill. Out of the 35 chapters of negotiation, only 16 have so far been opened and 14 chapters are being held hostage to political vetoes. The modernization of Customs Union is being delayed on political pretexts, while Turkish citizens are still denied visa-free travel within the EU area. Moreover, the EU is dragging its feet in fulfilling its financial obligations under the deal signed in 2016, which stopped the flow of refugees into Europe through the Aegean Sea.
This is indeed a deeply disturbing picture. We naturally have a very strong feeling that we are being subjected to heavy discrimination and double standards in the accession process.
Turkey-EU Association Council held its 54th meeting in Brussels on 15 March after a 4-year interval. This was a welcome step in the right direction. But we also want to see concrete progress on areas that really matter, such as opening new chapters and starting the talks on upgrading the Customs Union.
We are also aware that our job is made more difficult by the ongoing heated debates and polarization within the European Union itself. There is a long laundry list of problems Europe is struggling with. The uncertainties surrounding the Brexit, the sharply conflicting views on migration, the rise of radical movements, the clash between local politics and Eurocracy, to name a few. It is an open question whether the Union will emerge from this stormy period intact, or will begin to be transformed into something else as a result of these serious internal divisions.
We, in Turkey, are in favor of an undivided, strong and stable European Union, capable of addressing the existing problems in Europe effectively, and also capable of playing more active roles in solving global problems. The EU is sometimes described as “an economic giant but a political dwarf.” Justified or not, this is the prevailing perception. If it wants to get rid of this image, the EU must strive to become a truly global player, not just economically but also politically and strategically. I dare say that even its very survival as a Union may depend on it, since the world’s center of gravity is already shifting rapidly away from the West and towards the East.
And in order to achieve that status, the EU needs to do two things: strengthen its internal cohesion, and increase its capability to project hard and soft power substantially. On the second matter, Turkey is realistically the only country that can augment EU’s standing in the world. It is a pity that short-sighted policies and narrow-minded leaders in Europe have so far prevented this mutually beneficial outcome from materializing.
Despite all our current difficulties, EU membership still remains a strategic goal for Turkey. Because Europe is where we believe we belong when it comes to our values. In terms of history, culture and religion, we do have eastern roots, like Hungary, and we are proud of them. But in terms of the values Europe upholds such as pluralism, democracy, rule of law and human rights, we are undeniably oriented towards the West, and we are proud of it too.
We believe there is nothing incompatible between a country with a Muslim-majority population and its membership in a club with a predominantly Christian population. Religious differences did not prevent Turkey from joining NATO and defending the Alliance’s eastern flank for decades. Cultural differences did not stop us from becoming a member of the Council of Europe, OECD and OSCE. They did not hold us back from accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. So the religious and cultural excuses for keeping Turkey out do not hold much water.
Then what may be the real reason Turkey has been kept in the waiting room for so long? In my opinion, it is the unwillingness of the major EU powers to see Turkey as an equal partner and to give it a fair say in the decision making mechanisms of the Union. In other words, their refusal to share power, which they might fear will diminish their own power.
If this is indeed the real worry, that is, Turkey’s accession may upset the existing balance of power within the Union, it is a highly exaggerated one. Yes, size does matter. But Turkish foreign policy has always been driven by the principles of multilateralism, consensus-building, collective action and international legitimacy. Turkey has only strengthened and empowered the organizations it has so far joined. Our record speaks for itself. Therefore, Turkey’s accession will not be a zero-sum game, or win-lose scenario. On the contrary, it will benefit all sides, assuming that prejudices will be replaced by an open mind. After all, Turkey is willing to be a burden-sharer and wants to bring its own added value to the Union.
We appreciate the fact that Hungary is one of those countries who support Turkey’s accession. Hungary is aware that anything short of full membership, such as the so-called privileged partnership which has lately become fashionable in some EU circles, will be meaningless for Turkey. Because we are already in a special relationship with the EU, being the only country who entered the Customs Union before becoming a full member.
We are also pleased with the fact that the solidarity between Turkey and Hungary goes well beyond the EU framework and extends into other major platforms. Recently, Hungary became an observer in the Turkic Council, which will soon open its first European representation in Budapest. Another area where Turkey and Hungary have recently begun to cooperate is Africa. Last year, a joint working group was established to explore possibilities of collaboration on the African continent.
As these developments show, Turkey and Hungary value each other as reliable friends and partners. The centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023 will also be celebrated as the centenary of our diplomatic ties. On the basis of mutual trust, we have been able to forge a strategic partnership, which is expanding into new areas each year.
So far, we have held three meetings of the High Level Strategic Cooperation Council established in 2013. This mechanism allows major decisions to be taken at the highest level and sets the content and direction of our cooperation for a number of years. We are looking forward to the next meeting which will be held in Budapest this year under the co-chairmanship of President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Orban.
The volume of our bilateral trade is approaching the 3 billion dollar threshold. But our goal is to double it in the near future and we are looking for ways to speed up this process. There is certainly a vast potential for further growth in many sectors ranging from tourism and health to energy and defense industry. To the extent we can encourage exporters and importers through Eximbank support, visa facilities, ease of transportation, trade fairs and other steps, we can fulfil this potential.
Investments and contracting services represent another promising field. The projects undertaken by Turkish investors and construction companies in Hungary are quickly expanding in size and diversity. The shortage of labor in Hungary is often cited as a major factor in investment decisions. However, it has so far not discouraged Turkish contracting companies from doing business here.
The cultural, social and academic dimensions of our relations are also worth mentioning. Centuries of coexistence have created special bonds between the Turks and the Magyars. There are many reminders of our common historical heritage in cities like Szigetvar, Pecs, Tekirdağ and Kütahya. Perhaps the best known symbol of this legacy is the Gül Baba Türbe in Budapest, which was jointly renovated by both sides and re-opened in 2018. It is now attracting many more visitors than in the past.
One outstanding collaborative effort involved the discovery of the lost tomb of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who died during the siege of Szigetvar in 1566. When the ongoing excavations are completed, the site can be turned into another historical landmark through joint efforts. There are also plans to erect a monument in Gelibolu to honor the Hungarian soldiers who participated in the defense of the Çanakkale Strait during the First World War.
Such projects not only reinforce the friendly sentiments between our peoples but also encourage people-to-people contacts. Last year, we received more than 120 thousand Hungarian tourists in Turkey. More and more Turks are also coming to Hungary to enjoy the historical, cultural and natural wonders of this beautiful country.
Student exchanges are an important part of this trend. More than a thousand Turkish students are now studying at various universities across Hungary. They are attracted by the high quality and affordability of higher education here. Some of them are beneficiaries of the Hungaricum scholarships. We also have some Hungarian students in Turkey, although their numbers are more modest. But we are ready to provide more scholarships.
One area where we need to do more is strengthening academic exchanges. There are some formal mechanisms of cooperation such as the MoUs signed between our respective universities. But in general, such cooperation is still weak and needs to be further developed.
Up to now, the Turcology Department of ELTE University and the Hungarology Department of Ankara University have served as the flagships of our academic cooperation. We certainly value their efforts to promote a better understanding of our respective languages, histories and cultures. But I believe it is now time to push the envelope further in our academic cooperation.
In that regard, this panel, and the previous one held in İstanbul, are a good example of the potential benefits of deeper academic interaction. I hope this useful initiative will inspire other think tanks and academic circles to follow in your footsteps.
Thank you for your attention.
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