Some of us had an early start to the week in Brussels, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan addressing a breakfast meeting of the European Policy Centre in the swanky surroundings of the Conrad Hotel, accompanied both by his new EU chief negotiator, Egemen BaÄŸÄ±ÅŸ, and the outgoing EU negotiator, foreign minister Ali Babacan. It was a significant event, ErdoÄŸan’s first appearance in Brussels since the EU summit of December 2004; he had paved the way with a speech to Turkish immigrants in Hasselt the previous evening, appealing to them to integrate into their new homes, which got rather good coverage in the Belgian press. The audience was generally sympathetic (most Brussels insiders are in favour of Turkish membership of the EU, whatever one may hear from the French and Austrians).
Unfortunately, ErdoÄŸan did not really grasp the occasion as he could have done. His speech was too long (45 minutes), in Turkish (though with simultaneous translation available through headphones) and the tone was, frankly, more demagogic than statesmanlike. He spent the first third of it talking about Gaza; despite the fact that ErdoÄŸan and Babacan have more to brag about in regard to Gaza than almost anyone else, his remarks were pretty commonplace. He then complained about the evil French holding up the pace of negotiations, and then threatened to review Turkish support for the Nabucco pipeline if the Greek Cypriots were not forced to drop their objections to opening the energy chapter of Turkey’s accession treaty – a threat he then back-pedalled on later in the day when meeting with European Commission president Barroso, but anyway phrased in a way which suggests that ErdoÄŸan does not quite grasp how the EU’s relationship with its member states actually works.
One shouldn’t be too negative. ErdoÄŸan was clear about his ambition for Turkey to join the EU, and (reasonably) wants more positive messaging to come from the other side of the table. He spoke warmly and convincingly of Turkey’s internal reforms and blamed the opposition CHP for problems (a claim rather forcefully denied by a CHP spokeswoman in the audience). It wasn’t a good speech, but we in Brussels have heard worse: deputy prime minister AbdÃ¼llatif Åžener spoke for an hour in bad French at a Brussels conference in October 2006. Turkey’s road to the EU will be a long one, and ErdoÄŸan unwittingly indicated some of the reasons why in his style as much as in his substance. But at least one feels that the direction is forwards, however slowly.