In an exclusive interview with Today’s Zaman, Portuguese Ambassador to Turkey Luisa Bastos de Almeida said it was a blessing for both Turkey and Portugal to have diversified export markets, especially after major contraction in the European Union market. “After the global economic crisis, European countries -- small and big -- have been trying desperately to reach out to other markets in order to diversify their export portfolios. We are lucky in a sense that we had Portuguese-speaking countries to expand our markets and Turkey has special ties with countries from Ottoman times,” she said.
According to de Almeida, Portugal has a long tradition of venturing out, a tradition of searching for markets, and up until Portugal requested to join the EU right after the Portuguese revolution, which changed the direction of trade for Portugal, it was in search of other markets around the world, in Africa and Latin America.
The Portuguese ambassador underlined that in terms of searching for other markets during the economic crisis, Portuguese exports to European Union member countries have decreased while they increased for third-party countries. She says Portugal has very good relations with all African countries and is trying very hard to do the same in Turkey as well in terms of improving trade relations.
The trade volume between the two countries is small, but there is huge potential to build, the ambassador argues. According to Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat) data, the trade volume figures between Portugal and Turkey were $354 million and $327 million for the years 2001 and 2002, respectively. Over the years the trade volume between the two countries has gone up drastically, reaching $827 million and $969 million for the years 2009 and 2010, respectively. Turkey’s exports to Portugal for January 2011 totaled nearly $32 million, an increase of 14 percent compared to the same month of 2010.
She is determined to increase trade between the two countries. For example, next week de Almeida and her staff will visit Kayseri to meet with representatives of the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), which will follow another meeting in İstanbul.
“Now [that] we know that the two countries can get along really well, such opportunities should be explored more and public policy should be conducted more often on the civil society level,” she says. De Almeida says there are two vectors at play when it comes to her priorities: relations at the people level and economic relations.
She is taking concrete steps to back up such claims. The Portuguese Embassy just announced that Portugal is providing Portuguese visas in İstanbul now, in coordination with the Hungarian Consulate, in an effort to make it more convenient for Turks who wants to obtain Portuguese visas. Moreover, beginning March 30, green and gray passport holders will not be required to obtain a visa to go to Portugal. She says such changes will increase trade activity in both countries and businessmen from both sides will explore more trade options.
So all in all, she believes with such private sector cooperation in both countries, together with coordination among politicians on both sides, Portugal and Turkey could achieve the desired friendship in all respects. “That is why Portugal is trying to make it more convenient for Turks [to travel] to Portugal; and with such measures, the number of people visiting the other country will increase dramatically. The [more] often the people travel, the more opportunities they will find,” she says.
Potential for cooperation is promising
“I should mentioned that since the Portuguese and Turkish mentalities are similar and they both share a similar history in the sense that Turkey had an impact on different regions, like the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and Portugal had also [had an] impact on different regions, such as Latin America and Africa, and both of us now still have strong ties with those regions, this opens up a great opportunity both for Portugal and Turkey for potential cooperation in reaching to each other’s extended markets,” she says.
According to de Almeida, there is increasing interest among businesspeople in Portugal and she hopes to spark a similar interest in Turkey among Turkish businessmen as well. In that regard she met with the new commercial attaché of the Turkish Embassy in Portugal. “These types of connections are very important for an increased level of relations for [the two] countries, which we value highly,” she adds.
However, despite being on the same international platforms and despite the long histories of the two countries, each side knows little about the other. Recently the Turkish public’s interest in Portugal was piqued when İstanbul football club Beşiktaş transferred three Portuguese national team players, namely Ricardo Quaresma, Simão Sabrosa and Hugo Miguel Almeida. Other than such things, both sides are relatively new at discovering each other’s potential.
The ambassador also shared her impressions of a trip to the southeastern Turkish province of Mardin, where she was accompanied by a number of EU ambassadors led by EU Ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini.
The Portuguese ambassador says the trip provided a very interesting way for her to meet with people, in the sense that had she gone on the trip on her own, she would never have seen so many different types of people and different elements of society. The EU delegates met with political representatives, deputies, local authorities -- even the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who was in Mardin for a series of meetings for the upcoming elections -- and members of civil society. Describing the trip as informative and eclectic, de Almeida says the city of Mardin is absolutely beautiful and has lots of potential to be developed.
In her view, the authorities worked hard in order to bring the region up to the level of other developed regions in the country. “All the authorities that we met were in line in getting the region in general and the city in particular ready for EU standards. As for civil society, they voiced some frustrations, as some authorities did as well, regarding the Turkish-EU negotiation process, so in that sense I think there are a lot of misperceptions. For me it was very clear that this kind of public diplomacy that we were being part of and the public diplomacy with the civil society is the one we should do more often, again to get rid of those misperceptions that exist. And each country should do its best to get rid of those misperceptions,” she says.
De Almeida mentions the EU’s contribution to the city of Mardin by helping the latter modernize itself and become a touristic destination, which she describes as being a great step towards closing the ties between the two parties. The Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum left its impressions on the EU delegation which, according to the Portuguese ambassador, is a sign that there are already investments in order to display the continuous elements of that culture. “This is great news but there is still a ways to go. But, as I mentioned, the intention is there and everybody has been working hard.” she says.
More visits needed
A recent visit of Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bağış, to Portugal generated much news coverage about Turkey and served to give a positive boost to Turkey’s image, de Almeida says. She adds that such visits make people more curious about the other culture and their traditions, and once the interest is established, people can explore more opportunities in detail. That is why she thinks it is important for politicians to visit each other often in order to make their country more visible in the eyes of the other. And more importantly such visits also open opportunities for the private sector, she claims.
“Our efforts to make it more convenient for visa seekers and [to eliminate] visa [requirements] for Turkish green and gray passport holders should be seen [as] steps towards building more close and strong ties between the two countries. In İstanbul also there is a Portuguese representative in order to promote trade and investment and we are all in close contact with each other, working together in that sense. He is coming to Kayseri as well with us to contribute to the presentation. We have an Honorary Council in İstanbul and İzmir and we might have one in Antalya soon,” she says.
The Portuguese ambassador also values the cultural connectivity along with trade. What she has in mind in that regard are seminars, conferences and workshops. “We try to increase the cultural connectivity [between the two] countries. There are a lot of ways to get people together; getting people together is the most important thing, I think. Getting the ministers to visit each other, to make presentations about their respective countries and getting them to travel with the delegations of businessmen will open up opportunities,” she concludes.
Turkey and the EU
De Almeida argues that Turkey and the EU have interacted a great deal already and that the connection is there. According to her, speeches coming from politicians on both sides do not reflect reality but could be coming out of frustration.
Citing the Portuguese-Turkish partnership Alkeg-Tegopi in İzmir, she says such partnerships between Turkish businessmen and their EU member counterparts and having strong economic ties are also very important for Turkey in order to become an EU member. These kinds of activities will get people to connect, businesses to connect and in the end make Turkey’s accession easier, she explains.
She then continues, noting that Portugal requested to join the EU and that it took seven years for them to be able to join and 10 years of transition afterwards. “We also had to negotiate about the free movement of people since Portugal has a very big diaspora. So in Turkey you should not take it so personally,” de Almeida says.
De Almeida emphasizes the importance of students in terms of connecting the peoples of Portugal and Turkey. Regarding the exchange of students, last year some 460 Erasmus students went to Portugal from Turkey. In the first two months of this year alone the number has already reached 170, which is a sign of strong interest.
“I am also trying to get universities in both countries to work together and spark some interest from the students on both sides because students are very important factor multipliers and they play a very crucial role for the future of a durable relationship. The European University Association’s [EUA] Portuguese presidency candidate has a plan to get three universities on each side to connect with each other to work on programs, projects and so forth. I know the universities have independent decision-making bodies, but we can at least give some suggestions,” she says.
Opportunities for trade
Regarding the areas of opportunities to be explored, the Portuguese ambassador brings up information technologies (IT), stating that there have already been some bilateral connections between the Portuguese and Turkish tradesmen in that regard. She also says Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan had brought up the same issue during his meetings with the Portuguese delegation.
One of the contemporary fields that Portugal and Turkey could cooperate in is renewable energy. According to de Almeida, Portugal has been very successful in generating energy from ocean waves, but due to the nature of the waves in the seas around Turkey, such a thing may not be so feasible. However, Turkey and Portugal could cooperate to develop other means of renewable energy, she explains. Another area of opportunity that came up during the interview was the electric car sector. According to the Portuguese Embassy’s commercial staff, Turkey and Portugal are now exploring electric stations for electric cars since Portugal is one of the pioneer countries in electric car technology. Following a recent agreement, Portugal will provide batteries for electric cars in Turkey, the same sources revealed.
According to the aforementioned sources, another big Portuguese investment in Turkey is in the tourism sector. A Portuguese company will develop golf courses, an area where it also has extensive expertise. The Turkish and Portuguese partnership Alkeg-Tegopi will produce wind turbines in İzmir, a development that excites de Almeida since such a partnership will lead the way for further possible partnerships.
Business opportunities awaiting businessmen on both sides are tenders both in Portugal and Turkey for metro, transportation, railway, high-speed rail, hospitals and construction contracts. The Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) and the Built-Operate-Transfer (BOT) methods could be used for those projects. In addition to these sectors, de Almeida will also try to explore further sectors in which cooperation may be established during a meeting with the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) in Kayseri.
Shift of axis arguments
De Almeida does not buy the arguments that there exists a shift of axis and neo-Ottomanism in Turkish foreign policy. She says Turkey is a growing economy and that it is therefore quite normal for it to seek alternative markets. “That does not mean that its axis [has] shifted. In reality, Europe and Turkey are very much integrated. They need each other and they have a lot to gain from being together,” she continues. “Having some influence on other countries and trying to have good relations and making some trade deals with whom you have a special relationship does not mean you are pursuing neo-Ottomanism; rather it is to have good relations and trying to make the best out of it,” she concludes.