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Turkey: A vital player
28 July 2010
What David Cameron said about Gaza yesterday was not new. He had already said that it was a giant open prison, and adding the word `camp` was not to ratchet up the rhetoric. What made it his strongest intervention yet in the conflict was the fact that he was speaking in Turkey, alongside Israel`s former ally and now scourge, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who went on to compare the Israeli forces that attacked the flotilla to Somali pirates. The lesson of this is that a British prime minister can say something in Westminster which he cannot repeat in Ankara. This acknowledges how important a regional power Turkey has become.
The dramatic expansion of Turkey`s influence is more than just the product of a hyper-active foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkey has signed accords with Syria and Iraq. It defended the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir as a good Muslim. Along with Brazil, it brokered an agreement to transfer half of Iran`s supply of low-enriched uranium abroad – an offer that could still form part of the solution to the crisis. Turkey has transformed its relations with Russia and was the first to rush to Kyrgyzstan after the attempted ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks in the south. Join the dots of its contacts at all points of the compass around Ankara and there is some geographical truth in the opposition jibe that Mr Erdogan is trying to re-establish the Ottoman empire.
Turkey is doing what the European Union stopped doing when it ran into trouble over its expansion. It is using its soft power effectively. The fact that Turkey`s view on Hamas or the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is different to the stance of the US and the EU should make its role as a go-between even more attractive. That is why Mr Cameron is fundamentally right to keep hammering away at what much of the rest of Europe now considers a lost cause: Turkey`s membership of the EU. It is not just that Turkey has a fast-growing economy or that it has a youthful workforce. It is because, with the failure or stagnation of so many key US and EU policies in the region, we could really do with the help.
This is not to paper over the gaps that open up between civil rights in Turkey and European norms, nor the period of political turbulence that the Justice and Development party is about to enter as it approaches an election. Nor indeed do we minimise the contradictions of Mr Cameron`s position: praising Turkey`s candidacy, but stepping back in horror when millions of Turkish workers knock on our doors. But none of this undermines the value of building a secular, majority Muslim bridge to the Middle East, the Caucasus and central Asia.
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