OBG: How has the government interpreted the results of the European Union summit in December regarding potential membership of the EU?
ERDOGAN: The decision taken by the EU Council Summit for the opening of the accession negotiations on October 3, 2005 is an historic step which further consolidates the integration process of our country with the EU.
We welcome the fact that the European Council has acted in line with its previous commitments by setting a date for the start of the negotiations. And we are thankful for the decision made by all heads of states and governments, which constitutes one the most important steps towards the realisation of our country's membership of the Union.
Nonetheless, the Council conclusions embody a new framework for the countries with which the accession negotiations will start. But we do believe that some of our concerns will fade away as negotiations continue. The current achievements and perspectives of candidate countries will be useful in shaping the proposals and conditions developed by the European Commission.
The stage we have reached as a result of the decisive integration process between Turkey and the EU since the 1960s, is indispensable for the future of our relations. Our government, parliament, bureaucracy, private sector and civil society, which have mobilised all their resources towards achieving reforms and harmonisation, are now much more capable than ever before in focusing their energies on EU membership.
We believe that the process of negotiations will have an overall positive impact on our economy. We think that the confidence and the predictability in the economy will be further reinforced and the confidence of international investors will substantially improve with the start of accession negotiations. We have already been in a customs union with the EU for nine years, and the EU is our largest trading partner. Meanwhile, our industries continue to compete successfully with its EU competitors both in the Turkish and EU markets.
During the period of negotiations, we will further prepare our economy for the EU internal market in all sectors. We will build and expand the required administrative capacity with the help of EU financial assistance to adopt and implement all EU legislation, rules and standards. This entails a lot of hard work, but we trust that we will bring the process of negotiations to a successful end with the full convergence of our economy with the EU internal market.
OBG: What areas do you believe have been most neglected by the European press and public opinion as they assess Turkey's potential as a future EU member?
ERDOGAN: We believe that Turkey's membership will be an asset and an advantage for the EU, especially in terms of foreign, defence and security policy, due to our strategic geography. Turkey's accession will propel the EU to the forefront of global geopolitics and endow it with a genuine strategic concept and policy. The EU will transform from an inward regional organisation whose strategic depth ends at its borders into an active influential global power.
Once we become a member, we will assist the EU's efforts in providing a contribution beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, to securing peace, stability, security and welfare in the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. Moreover, access by the EU to markets to our region will be facilitated. With the completion of the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the secure transportation of petroleum and the natural gas from the Caucasus and Central Asia to western markets will be ensured. Thus, in terms of energy supply diversification, our membership will be good news for the EU.
On the other hand, as a democratic and secular Muslim state that espouses contemporary European values, Turkey's membership of the EU will demonstrate to the world that Islam and modernity can co-exist. It will also clearly show that people from all faiths can live peacefully under the roof of the EU, on the basis of common values and interests and strengthen the ground for dialogue and cooperation.
I assume that as we proceed with the process of negotiations, the potential contributions that Turkey will make to the EU will be better assessed and appreciated by the EU decision-makers and public opinion.
OBG: What kind of role do you see Turkey playing in the Arab world over the coming years?
ERDOGAN: The year 2004 has been fraught with various opportunities and challenges for Turkish foreign policy. Cyprus, Iraq, the EU and other issues topped our agenda. The election of Turkey's candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu as the Secretary General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) last June was a heartening success. Ihsanoglu is an experienced dignitary with excellent academic credentials and a good knowledge of the OIC and the Islamic world. He enjoys our confidence and we hope that he will render great services to the organisation based on the principles of impartiality and professionalism.
With important decisions for reform and renovation already agreed upon, we hope that the OIC is sailing into waters of enlightened moderation and global achievement by bridging the differences, broadening the principle of tolerance and democracy, by promoting lasting peace and contributing to sustainable development in our aging world. It is high time for the OIC to reform itself in order to better address the expectations of its member states and work effectively in the direction of bringing cultures, religions and civilisations closer to each other.
Turkey shares the assessment that international organisations need to be more competitive, inclusive, transparent and effective in the 21st Century in order to effectively fulfil their objectives. I cannot happily say that no member state of the OIC would wish to see the organisation lagging behind international realities, nor are they satisfied with the level of the OIC's current performance. Nevertheless, the Secretary General's role and success are tantamount to the confidence and support that the entire membership will accord to him.
Turkey, for its part, will do its best to contribute to the performance and restructuring of the OIC. Yet, the success of the reform process will depend on the level of commitment of member states along with effective action. We believe that gradual but tangible reforms can improve the credibility and performance of the Conference. Placing the spirit of cooperation and collective benefit back on track, will certainly be a big step forward in the right direction. We need to bear the fruits of coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation, rather than facing the unpredictable consequences of a so-called, "clash-of-civilizations". The rational choice between these two alternatives would be unambiguous for anybody with a sense of reason. Therefore, it is incumbent upon every one of us to encourage, at these turbulent times, the culture of harmony and peaceful co-existence for a better world. It goes without saying that Turkey is committed to these goals and will work towards their achievement.
As far as our role in the Arab world is concerned, I can say that developing peaceful and mutually beneficial relations with the entire Arab world has traditionally been among the principles of our multi-dimensional foreign policy and it shall remain so in the future as well. Needless to say, we enjoy deep-rooted bonds of friendship based on common history and cultural heritage.
We see more potential for cooperation around us in every field. Amidst the precarious situation in Iraq, the stagnated Middle East peace process and the volatile security situation in different parts of the world, which hampers viable trade and balanced economic relations, we stand firm on our position to shoulder the responsibilities that the new century has laid in front of us. The Turkish government, as well as our private sector, are poised to face the new challenges and transform the opportunities into positive achievements -- both in the region and the world at large.
We would like to see Iraq attaining stability and normality in the near future. Iraq must become a democratic, united, territorially integral and prosperous country, at peace with its own people, with its neighbours and the international community. The current transitional process and the political plan endorsed by the UN Security Council Resolution 1546 has no viable alternative and we support the Iraqi people in their endeavours to implement the initiative.
Turkey also backs the UN's role in Iraq and the timely elections. We enjoy a unique position of defending identical views and principles before our partners in different multilateral fora, at the UN, NATO, the EU, the OIC and Iraq's neighbourhood platforms. We believe that transparency, orderliness and the widest participation in the upcoming elections of all segments of Iraqi society will be the key for lasting settlement. This would also help improve the security situation in war-ravaged Iraq whilst preventing a crisis of legitimacy.
Obviously, we are not underestimating the challenges ahead. The Iraqi people have a long way to go until they attain the level of democracy and rule of law that they deserve. But the international community stands by them. Turkey, for its part, also does and will continue doing so.
The protracted Arab-Israeli conflict also stands as one of the outstanding issues compounding instability in the world, with ever-growing serious consequences for regional and international peace.
Turkey, believes that the Road Map is the only available framework for bringing a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We feel that the future might offer a rare opportunity to the Palestinians and the Israelis to move ahead towards a viable settlement.
The reviving of the process should remain the central objective of the current efforts. We welcome the Quartet's role and endeavours in this respect. Likewise, fulfilling the performance criteria by both sides as laid out in the Road Map is important. Terrorist attacks against the Israeli people must stop. So must the deliberate destruction of Palestinian lives and property. The reform process of the Palestinian institutions must be advanced. Israeli settlement activities must halt. We invite Israel to coordinate its unilateral withdrawal from Gaza with the Road Map. The international community also must be more forthcoming to urgently improve the living conditions of the Palestinians. Any settlement would be incomplete without progress in all the tracks, including the Syrian and the Lebanese ones.
We are determined to assist the parties in their efforts to reach a settlement based on the vision of two states, living side by side within secure and recognised boundaries. And we are ready to make every possible contribution to securing a lasting, peaceful solution to the Middle East problem.
Turkey will actively support the Palestinian elections. We sincerely believe and hope that once they decide on their new leadership, the Palestinians will be able to move more decisively towards the implementation of the Road Map. Based on our privileged relations with the parties, we also think that we will be best placed to play a role as a "facilitator" towards the implementation of the Road Map. We shall continue exerting efforts in this direction.