16 April 2014, Wednesday
Today's Zaman

GMF’s Ünlühisarcikli: Turks pessimistic, Europeans fatalistic on EU membership

14 September 2009, Monday /YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN
Ankara Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı has said that the most recent transatlantic survey shows that when it comes to Turkey's membership in the European Union, Turkish people are pessimistic and Europeans are fatalistic.

“Europeans think that even though they do not believe that Turkey's membership in the EU is a good thing, they think it is unavoidable just because that's what happens to negotiating candidates. On the other hand, [although] Turkish people think that joining the EU is a good thing, [they believe] it's not likely,” he said referring to the annual “Transatlantic Trends 2009” survey conducted by the GMF in 12 European countries, including Turkey, and in the United States.

Ünlühisarcıklı told Monday Talk that this result shows that the tense relations between the EU and Turkey are most likely to continue.

Regarding the question of Turkey sharing enough common values to be part of the West, about a third of the respondents from Turkey and the EU said “yes.” Ünlühisarcıklı said the result is not surprising but that it is bothersome because Turkey has been trying to become a part of Europe for about 50 years and was indeed a part of the West even during the Ottoman period.

According to the general trends in the survey, there has been a global upward trend in support for US President Barack Obama: 50 percent of the Turkish public supported him, compared to 74 percent of people in Western Europe and 69 percent in Eastern Europe. But the Turkish backing for Obama represented a 42 percentage point increase over the approval of former President George W. Bush, which was only at 8 percent in Turkey last year.

Ünlühisarcıklı answered our questions regarding Turkey and transatlantic trends.

In the survey you have a specific section called “The Turkish Enigma.” What findings prompted you to see the situation in Turkey as puzzling?

There have been persistent questions in the West about where Turkey has been heading and if it has been moving away from the West. In answering those questions, either from Turkey or outside, analyses were made either to say Turkey is moving away from the West or that Turkish foreign policy is transforming and moving further toward the West. My view is neither option is 100 percent true, but there are isolationist tendencies when you look at the issue from the public opinion perspective as we did in the survey. So considering all those questions, there is a puzzling situation.

Can you solve the puzzle by looking at the survey results?

The importance of public opinion in the foreign policy decision-making process has been increasing in and outside of Turkey. But long-lasting state policies and the effects of opinion leaders and foreign ministries still carry weight. Our survey measures only public opinion; however, apart from the survey, Turkey's situation is not such a difficult puzzle. First of all, not only Turkey, but also its region and the world have been changing. Turkish foreign policy has been traditionally determined within the limits of the Cold War up until recently. Following the Cold War, Turkey has gotten rid of some old threats and has had some new threats and, at the same time, it has seen some new opportunities. In the meantime, the Turkish economy has been improving, and this factor has had an effect on the new Turkish policy which is still in the making.

What clues do you have about the direction of Turkish foreign policy by looking at the survey results?

There are signs of Europeanization. For example, Turkish public opinion is in line with European public opinion about stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and support of increasing the economic contribution to Afghanistan. Respondents in all 13 countries except for the United States wanted to see the number of their troops reduced or their forces totally withdrawn. Another example is in regards to the awareness about environmental challenges. Turkish public opinion, like that of its European neighbors, is very concerned about climate change. But there are deviations from the European trends as well.

What are these?

Approaches toward Iran differ not only between Turkey and Europe, but also between Europe and the United States. If diplomatic efforts fail to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the majority of the European Union respondents and Turkey support increasing diplomatic pressure on Iran but ruled out the use of military force against it, although most Americans favored diplomatic pressure and keeping the military option. Still, on both sides of the Atlantic, except Turkey, public opinion is against Iran having nuclear weapons. There was a sharp increase in Turkish willingness to accept Tehran having nuclear weapons. Only 16 percent of the Turkish people in 2007 found such an outcome acceptable if diplomatic pressure to end the Iranian nuclear program failed. But in 2009, 29 percent of the Turkish people said this result was acceptable compared with only 5 percent of Americans and EU members.

Turkish soft power against Iran

How do you interpret this finding?

Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Prior to joining the GMF, Ünlühisarcıklı was the manager of the resource development department of the Educational Volunteers Foundation of Turkey (TEGV). Previously, he worked as the director of the ARI Movement, a Turkish nongovernmental organization aiming to promote participatory democracy. He also worked as a consultant for AB Consulting and Investment Services. A graduate of Robert College in İstanbul, he received his bachelor's degree in business administration from Marmara University and his master's from Koç University.

This finding is against all the parameters of the Turkish foreign policy, which aims at becoming an independent, regional soft power. Turkey aims at doing that by placing emphasis on its transatlantic ties and prioritizing European Union membership. In a region where nuclear powers speak, Turkey's assertion of being a regional power would not carry weight. It would be Iran who has the power in the region. Consequently, Turkey's independence would be undermined would need the protection of the United States against the Iranian nuclear threat. This fact is a well known by the government, the Foreign Ministry, decision-makers, opinion leaders and academics, but it seems like the Turkish public is not aware of it.

Do you think the Turkish public's anti-Israel feelings have an effect on this?

This is a factor, probably. Despite this fact, opinion leaders and the government are worried about Iran's nuclear ambitions because they watch Turkey's security interests.

This reminds me of your “transatlantic thermometer,” which gauges the warmth of feelings toward various countries. You don't have this feature this year, but last year you had interesting findings.

Turkish families affected most by economic crisis

One striking result in the survey was in regards to the economy, as 78 percent of the Turkish respondents said their family has been affected by the financial crisis. What do you think?

Yes, it is obvious now that the economic crisis has had a great impact on Turkey. This is also true for other countries. Three in four Americans [74 percent] compared to more than half of the Europeans [55 percent] said their families have been impacted by the recession. When we look at how this will affect transatlantic relations, we can say that people are less tolerant of others in countries where the economy is in crisis. If the crisis is further prolonged, Europeans would not welcome Turkey's membership in the EU. Another concern was whether or not the economic downturn would hurt transatlantic relations. But the survey does not show that the transatlantic partnership is hurt. So Europe's economic problems have not increased anti-Americanism. To the contrary, Europeans approved of Obama's handling of the economic crisis, and they thought strong US leadership in world economic affairs was desirable.

Yes, we would ask people to rate the warmth of their feelings toward a number of countries from one to 100. Interestingly, the warmth that the Americans had toward Iranians was higher than the warmth that the Turkish people were feeling toward Iranians.

What were Turkish people's favorite countries as shown on the thermometer?

Indeed, Turkey liked itself the most. Other than themselves, Turkish people would show warm feelings toward Azerbaijanis. But they would not feel particularly close to any of the people of any of the countries. The most disliked country was Israel.

European Union countries?

EU countries were a little below Palestinians and above the United States.

Based on last year's survey results, there were analyses made regarding Turkey's increasing self-confidence. Do you think same trend continues?

Yes, it does. When asked which country Turkey should cooperate most closely with, Turkish people [43 percent] say that Turkey should act alone [with the EU, 22 percent; with the Middle Eastern countries,10 percent; with the US, 4 percent; with Russia, 3 percent]. This may be an indication of self-confidence. But if this self-confidence is reflected in real-life policy and if Turkey decided to act alone in the world, there would be a disaster. In addition, only a third of the Turkish people think that NATO is essential to Turkey's security [compared to 53 percent in 2004].

Cyprus problem blocks EU, NATO alliance

Are there lessons for NATO in there?

NATO's strategic framework document was prepared during the Cold War. Mutual threats were different then. Are there still mutual threats? Yes, for example, there are problems of piracy and international terrorism. There might be cyber terror attacks in the future, which could be even a bigger threat than armed conflicts. NATO is not prepared for action in such an environment. NATO does not have a deterrent effect in that regard, but it is preparing for that. A major challenge for NATO is going forward with its strategic cooperation with the EU, and on that issue there is pressure on Turkey. Because of the Cyprus problem, Turkey doesn't accept NATO assets being used by Southern Cyprus. On the other hand, as Southern Cyprus is a member of the EU, it is expected to use NATO assets if there is such an agreement between NATO and the EU. Moreover, Turkey, which is a crucial security partner of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance, doesn't have a voice in the security policies of the EU.

Because of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot confrontation, the strategic cooperation of NATO and the EU is blocked. The new NATO secretary-general [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] has been voicing concern over this issue and spoke about it while he was in Turkey recently. But it cannot be solved by steps taken by Turkey alone. It takes two to tango.

Common values: Turkey and Europe

“Does Turkey share enough common values to be part of the West?” was another question posed in the survey. About a third of the respondents from Turkey and the EU say “yes.” What does that indicate?

It is not a surprising result, although it is bothersome because Turkey has been trying to become a part of Europe for about 50 years, and it was indeed a part of the West even during the Ottoman period. But now we talk about such discrepancies as to whether Turkey is or is not part of the West since it has an Islamic culture. Take the Alliance of Civilizations, an excellent project. As co-presidents, Spain is representing the West and Turkey is representing the East. This is disheartening in a way. And take the new Ottomanism discussion: Turkey has been automatically perceived as turning to the Middle East. It has not been considered that most Ottoman architecture is found in the Balkans, not in the Middle East! The main artery of both the Ottomans and Turkey is in the West, be it economic, political or diplomatic. Turkish citizen of Kurdish origin and sociologist Ziya Gökalp said, “We are a nation of Turks, a community of Islam and a civilization of the West.” Therefore, the public needs to be given the right messages in a stronger way. Having those identities was not conflicting then [in the Ottoman era].

In a previous conversation you said that when it comes to Turkey's membership in the EU, Turkish people are pessimistic and Europeans are fatalistic.

The Europeans think that even though they do not believe that Turkey's membership in the EU is a “good thing,” they [54 percent] think that it is unavoidable just because that's what happens to negotiating candidates. On the other hand, Turkish people [48 percent] think that [although] joining the EU is a good thing, [they believe] it's not likely. This shows that the tense relationship between the EU and Turkey is most likely to continue.