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Turkey

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 20 May 2009

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they and their European Union and NATO allies are taking to encourage political dialogue within Turkey on decentralisation, protection and self-determination for minorities, and reforms in the criminal justice and penal systems.

My Lords, the UK sees Turkey’s European Union accession process as the most effective catalyst for change. Through this process, working closely with our EU partners, we encourage the expansion of cultural and minority rights and reform in the criminal justice system. We encourage NATO partners who are not in the EU to support reform. The FCO also provides support for criminal justice reform including training, and funds projects that support anti-discrimination and minority rights.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that internal dialogue in Turkey between its several different traditions is necessary if the Kurdish, Armenia and Cyprus questions are ever to be resolved? Are these not the keys to Turkey’s EU application?

My Lords, I confirm that resolving relations with Cyprus and Armenia is an important obligation on EU candidates, in this case Turkey, because it is a requirement of good neighbourly relations. We have encouraged Turkey to resolve these issues through both internal and external dialogue.

My Lords, the Turkish Government are the first to acknowledge that there are deficiencies, but does the Minister agree that the direction of travel is right and that in many ways Turkey is a model for other Islamic states? How does he assess the recent joint declaration made by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy that Turkey can only hope to enjoy a privileged position with the EU and will be barred from membership? Is that likely to affect the current negotiations that have been promised to Turkey since the 1960s? What is the UK Government’s position in respect of the declaration and its implications?

My Lords, as far as the UK Government are concerned, EU policy remains unchanged: there is an accession process for Turkey under way. The UK strongly supports it, and strongly supports Turkey’s eventual membership of the EU.

My Lords, President Gul’s positive recent statement about greater integration of Kurds as a minority into Turkish political life has been roundly attacked by both the main opposition parties and appears not to be supported by substantial elements within the armed services. In those circumstances, I hope Her Majesty's Government are giving every support they can to the constitutional authorities in Turkey to continue the dialogue. I also hope that British political parties which may have closer links to the opposition parties than to the AKP are trying to get across the same message.

My Lords, we have noticed some loss of momentum in reform in Turkey both on other accession issues such as economic reform and on issues relating to the Kurdish areas. The recent decline in the ruling party’s vote in the local elections in that area of the country may have served as something of a disappointment to it. However, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s point. We must give them every encouragement to stick to the difficult road they are going down and to continue to try to bring this group fully into the political mainstream through the reforms that they have under way.

My Lords, although I understand the answer that the Minister has given, may I suggest that it is our duty to remember that Turkey has been our ally for 90 years, including during the Cold War period? It is a massive country with massive problems but everybody, including this Government, seems willing to put its interests on the back burner. Is it not time that we moved its interests forward in terms of membership of the European Union?

My Lords, I completely agree with the noble Lord’s fundamental analysis. Turkey is an extraordinary country with an extraordinary history, and, in our view, it has an extraordinary future within Europe. It is enormously important that we continue pressing for that. However, as an earlier question suggested, unfortunately, our enthusiasm for Turkey’s membership of the European Union is not universally shared by all other member states. We need to fight back against that.

My Lords, while we welcome social advance in Turkey and its eventual membership of the European Union—where it will become by far the biggest member when it finally arrives—Turkey is today at the epicentre of world events and Middle East events and, indeed, of all links between Islam and the western world. Will the Minister ensure that in supporting Turkey’s efforts in every way, we are less inclined to lecture and more inclined to encourage and support? Sometimes the lectures sound a little high-handed, particularly when we have enough troubles of our own here at home.

My Lords, I certainly endorse the noble Lord’s view that lecturing is not the most appropriate form of foreign policy. The rebuke, if it is that, is well taken, because we need in general to be careful about asserting these points in a lecturing way. However, I hope that the relationship with Turkey is well situated within a European Commission review process across the so-called 35 chapters and the Copenhagen principles and so on, where there is continual review of progress and yearly reporting on it, and that this technical discussion avoids anyone getting up into the pulpit and offering the kind of lecturing that the noble Lord rightly wants to avoid.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that since the election of Mr Christofias as the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Mr Mehmet Talat as the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Turkey is playing a much more positive role in trying to assist that settlement process, not only because of the pressures around the application to join the European Union but because it is now recognised on both sides of this long-standing dispute that the time has come to settle it, and there are two leaders in place in both communities who are determined to do their best to achieve that very end?

My Lords, we are very pleased about the fact that there are now two leaders who very much want to arrive at a negotiated settlement to this dispute. We believe that the Government of Turkey have played a constructive role in this. There is still further to go in the negotiations than we would have wished, and the early honeymoon has turned into a long, hard slog in trying to make progress on the negotiations.

My Lords, on the issue of Cyprus, Turkey and Greece, can the Minister confirm that the Presidents of Greek Cyprus and Greece are totally opposed to a policy of enosis?

My Lords, the British Government’s view on that is well known. We feel very strongly that the two communities have to find a way in which to live together in full respect for each other and for each other’s rights.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that absolute religious freedom, including the freedom to convert from one religion to another, is a core human right and must be fully accepted by any member country of the European Union?

My Lords, I certainly would. There are issues on which Turkey still needs to make progress, including issues about the Turkish penal code. For example, there has been a dispute recently about movements to Islamise the state, which have been resisted, with regard to headdresses and such like. Those issues are highly sensitive in Turkey, but we believe that the Government understand the nature of pluralistic religious freedoms and are trying to find a way through that cultural thicket.

My Lords, would the Minister not further agree that Turkey needs also to reassure western Europe and the United Kingdom that it will proceed much more rapidly with the economic modernisation necessary east of Ankara, where, apart from tourism, there is a very low rate of income, GNP and output? That needs to be put right to reassure the other EU member states that have serious hesitations about its membership.

My Lords, as I said in answer to an earlier question, I think that the noble Lord is quite right. We are disappointed about how the momentum of economic reform has slowed down. We are using every means that we can to encourage the Government of Turkey once more to put their foot on the pedal and accelerate those reforms, despite the fact that it is now a difficult economic time to be doing that in any country.

My Lords, can the Minister say what progress is being made in improving the treatment and experience of children and young people in the criminal justice and penal system in Turkey—or will he write to me?

My Lords, I shall certainly need to write to the noble Earl. There are improvements in the penal code system in general, but there are difficulties with regard to children, some of which have been the subject of television programmes in this country. I shall be happy to give the noble Earl an update on those issues.