Old Friends, New Leaders: Poland and Turkey in the Early 21stcentury

The 600th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey offers a unique opportunity for Poland to build a permanent strategic partnership with the most dynamic neighbor of the EU

After joining the EU and NATO Poland tries to find its place on the economic and political map of the world, where tectonic shifts occur, such as the growing importance of China and other emerging non-European powers, and the shrinking influence of the West. Focusing our attention on such giants as China and India, we should not forget about a very significant new phenomenon: the increasing role of countries, which could be called—to use the boxing terminology—medium-weight players. Turkey is a classic example of such a power.

Among medium-weight players, Turkey is by far the most important for Warsaw, for the following reasons:

  • geography (a regional power closest to Poland)
  • key geopolitical position (a country to some extent belonging to the Caucasus, the Black Sea region and the Middle East, and lying close to Africa and Central Asia)
  • big and systematically growing influence in the post-Soviet area (participation in trade exchange, direct investments, construction contracts, cooperation within regional organizations, development aid, grants, Turkish education abroad, military cooperation, tourism, cultural ties)
  • NATO membership (one of the most powerful armies) and EU accession process (important consequences of the possible Turkish membership for the EU; Turkey is the candidate with the largest potential since Great Britain).

The importance of Turkey for Poland will grow in the coming decades due to its economic and demographic prospects, much better than for the EU and Russia. UN prognoses say that in 2050, the population of Turkey will be 95 million, compared to 120 million in Russia and 75 million in Germany. In Germany and especially in Russia there will be a significant increase in the percentage of Muslims, mostly of Turkic origin or culturally connected with Turkey. Their growing role can be observed even today. The most striking example of that is the career of Cem Özdemir, the leader of German Greens. Thanks to its historical and cultural ties with Russian and German Muslims Ankara may acquire new possibilities of shaping its relations with Germany and Russia.

Poland needs a comprehensive social and economic strategy, one of its necessary elements being migration policy. The experiences of Western Europe and the demographic situation in the European Neighborhood suggest that Muslims will constitute a major part of “new” Poles (because of its demographic prospects, even worse than for Poland, Eastern Europe cannot be a large immigration reservoir for our country). Turkey (especially if it becomes an EU member) and regions strongly connected with it, such as Kurdistan or Turkic republics, seem to be the optimum choice. Creating an attractive offer for immigrants will of course be the key to a successful immigration policy.

Polish-Turkish relations intensified in recent years. Both countries mutually regard themselves as promising markets. Poland is the only EU country, which has been awarded such an official status by the Turkish ministry of the economy. Among Muslim countries, Turkey is Poland’s most important trading partner (a share of about 1.5% in Polish trade balance). In 2013, the volume of trade will probably surpass 6 billion dollars. In Polish exports to non-European markets, Turkey occupies second place, right after the USA (about 15 %). In recent years Turkey doubled its share in Polish exports. But if we take into account the geographic position of both countries and the dynamics of their growth, this exchange could be much greater.

Poland is the second most important (after Romania) construction market for Turkey in the EU. In the period of 1989—2013, Turkish building contracts in Poland amounted to 1.2 billion dollars. This sum will grow significantly when the largest urban construction investment in Poland is completed, that is the second line of the underground railway in Warsaw built by a Polish-Turkish-Italian consortium. The investment is worth almost 2 billion dollars. In all probability, the same consortium will win the tender for the extension of the second line, also worth roughly two billion dollars.

About 400–500 thousand Polish tourists travel to Turkey every year. If we compare it to the number of Czechs, Slovaks or Lithuanians visiting this country, we are tempted to conclude that Polish tourists potentially could be twice as numerous. Poland is the most popular destination for Turkish students under the Erasmus program— Poles form one of the most numerous EU student communities in Turkey. There is a university founded by the Turks in Poland—a rare phenomenon in the EU. As a result, we have 700 full-time students from Turkey, more than from Russia or Germany. A great opportunity for tightening the relations with Turkey and for giving specific substance to the strategic partnership from 2009 is offered by the 600th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with Turkey, which will be celebrated in 2014. The leading idea of cooperation between Poland and Turkey, two medium- weight players, should be the idea of a strategic partnership on a global scale, and in Eurasia. A new format for this cooperation should be provided by the establishment of the High Council for Strategic Cooperation (Ankara established it with a dozen countries in the world). Its main purpose should be an intensification of economic exchange (investments, building sector, trade, tourism, joint ventures, energy), academic exchange (universities, research centers), military cooperation (joint projects for military equipment production) and energy cooperation (building LNG ports, interconnectors, drilling for shale gas, clean coal, renewable energy, atomic energy) as well as political cooperation.

An example to follow could be the strategic partnership between Great Britain and Turkey, providing the framework for close cooperation between British and Turkish companies in third countries. The list of non-European markets vital for Poland is headed by Kazakhstan, with Turkey having awarded the strategic market status to Kazakhstan and the Ukraine recently. And it is these markets that should become areas for cooperation between Polish and Turkish business.

Poland and Turkey are also interested in expansion of exports to Russia. This means that they should select a number of Russian federal republics, for example Tatarstan, as Polish-Turkish specializations. A source of inspiration here could be the Turkish company Gulermak, building the Warsaw underground: in the closing months of 2013, with Polish subcontractors, it entered the last stage of the tender for the extension of the underground in Copenhagen and building a huge tunnel in Norway (at the time of writing, the results of the tender were not announced yet).

A particularly important area for Polish- Turkish cooperation should be the Black Sea region. Its agenda should contain economic exchange (investments, building sector, trade, development of transport infrastructure), academic exchange (research projects), military cooperation (joint training and maneuvers, equipment production), energy cooperation (the southern corridor: new gas-pipes, LNG ports and drilling for deposits) as well as joint diplomatic initiatives regarding frozen conflicts. Poland and Turkey should draw Romania and the Ukraine into these actions; in recent years, Ankara markedly intensified its cooperation with these countries. It is worth recalling that in 2012 Poland, Turkey and Romania established trilateral consultations of their foreign ministries.

Regional organizations should form one of the areas of Polish-Turkish cooperation. In October 2013 the Turkish foreign minister for the first time took part in a Visegrád Group summit. It would be advisable to permanently include Turkey in the Visegrád Plus formula. The Visegrád Group itself established relations with the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC)—with the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland having observer status—and with the Council for Cooperation of Turkic Countries.

A stronger support for the Turkish accession is necessary if the Polish-Turkish relations are to intensify. Poland is now more active in this matter than a few years ago. In June 2013, we were one of the main European countries successfully making efforts to avoid a crisis in the negotiations. As a new EU member with fresh experiences, Poland could support the process of Europeanization of Turkey (implementation of the acquis communautaire, cooperation between civil societies).

It is worth recalling that among the countries of the world, Poland belongs to those most similar to Turkey. In the Global Competitiveness Index of 2013, published by the World Economic Forum, both countries had an almost identical number of points (the main difference being our poor demographic prospects but an adequate immigration and pro-family policy could help bridge the gap). Poland is also a natural “European connection” for Turkey. A number of elements contribute to that:

  • successful transition, started 20 years ago and still unfinished (a second modernization leap is necessary, from an economy based on cheap labor to an economy based on innovation) a significant demographic and economic potential (almost 40 million inhabitants and over 800 billion dollars in purchasing power) average per capita income much closer to Turkey than Germany
  • rapid economic growth—much faster than in the countries of the “classic” West
  • position in the region (building coalitions for specific issues within the EU, cooperation within the Visegrád Group and the V-4 Plus mechanism)
  • challenges (economic growth based on savings lower than investments, dependence on short-term foreign capital, a large economic grey area, a much higher level of corruption than in the countries of Northern Europe, low level of innovativeness, a large agricultural sector, infrastructural deficits, much lower levels of employment and productivity that in Northern Europe, a“dirty” energy balance)

The reform of local administration should be a Polish export commodity (in the context of the peace process with Kurdish guerrillas, started in 2013, it has a fundamental importance for Turkey). It would be very well received if Poland presented ideas for solving the Cyprus problem on the international and EU forum. It is also extremely important to promote our historical heritage, unprecedented in Europe (the Muslim Tatar minority living in Poland since many centuries, few wars of Poland against the High Porte compared to other Ottoman neighbors, the first friendship treaty between the Ottoman Empire and a Christian state [1533], a very significant role of Poles in the 19th-century modernization of Turkey and the perception of Turkey in Poland, since the 18th century, as a potential liberator from Soviet control). This common heritage provides a very strong foundation for Poland playing the role of the main EU partner of Turkey.

Adam Balcer

is a political scientist, expert in Polish foreign policy. He works as a Project Manager at WiseEUROPA and a National Researcher at the European at Warsaw University.

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