Speech by Verhagen at Wittenburg Conference

Speech by foreign minister Verhagen at opening of Dutch-Turkish bilateral conference (Wittenburg Conference), Hotel Des Indes, 7 October 2009

Good morning , ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to The Hague, and to Hotel Des Indes. In particular, I would like to extend a warm welcome to my Turkish colleague, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Ahmet, we saw each other only a few weeks ago at the General Assembly in New York. But this is your first visit to the Netherlands since taking office in May and I certainly hope it won’t be your last. A Turkish newspaper recently reported that you had visited ten countries in ten days 1 – which is a record I have yet to match! It shows that you have taken on your new position with great energy and ambition – which I admire greatly. I hope that you will often include the Netherlands in your travels – we will always be honoured to welcome you!

Diplomatic relations between our two countries date back almost four hundred years. In fact, we will reach that milestone in 2012. And we will make it a celebration to remember! Turkey and the Netherlands enjoy a warm and multi-faceted relationship. It is one characterised by close economic, political and cultural cooperation. Turkey is still our fourth-largest trading partner outside the European Union. Eleven hundred (1,100) Dutch companies currently have a presence in Turkey. And I can assure you that the Dutch government is working harder than ever to facilitate foreign trade and investment in this time of economic crisis. After all, foreign trade and investment are the backbone of the Dutch economy. And the same goes for Turkey. It is crucial that we continue to support that lifeline. The economic crisis should not delay important economic reform – it should accelerate it.

Energy is an area that connects us. Turkey is a vital supply route for the Netherlands, and for Europe as a whole. That’s why I am delighted that the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Nabucco Pipeline has now been signed in Ankara. Last year, our two countries embarked on a joint energy programme, with projects relating to energy efficiency, transmission of electricity and gas, renewable energy, and climate change. I am sure you will discuss these and other energy-related projects today. The way I see it, there is great potential for further cooperation in this area.

But relations between Turkey and the Netherlands are not just between governments. They are also people-based, which makes our bond even stronger. Around four hundred thousand (400,000) people of Turkish origin live in the Netherlands and many contribute greatly to Dutch society. And of course, plenty of Dutch tourists find their way to Turkey each year to enjoy your country’s beauty and hospitality. The Dutch also have a great interest in Turkish art and culture. Next year, Istanbul will be a European Capital of Culture. We greatly look forward to working with you in the run-up to this important event!

Ladies and gentlemen,

For centuries, Turkey has been described as the bridge connecting East and West, both literally and metaphorically. In modern times, too, Turkey has proven itself worthy of that role. The Alliance of Civilisations was the brainchild of your Prime Minister, together with his Spanish counterpart. Four years in the making, the Alliance has become an important platform for international, intercultural and interreligious dialogue and cooperation – as I witnessed at the Alliance’s last Forum in Istanbul earlier this year.

You have taken on an important role in the wider region as well. Turkey’s involvement in Afghanistan is highly appreciated. Your country has facilitated talks between Israel and Syria and has been a respected partner in the Middle East Peace Process for all parties concerned. Turkey played an extremely helpful role in calming recent tensions between Iraq and Syria. And Ahmet, last month you visited Tehran in an attempt to persuade the Iranians to cooperate with the international community and engage in confidence-building measures. I truly value your efforts. And I believe you are pursuing a very wise foreign policy, too. By improving relations with your neighbouring countries, as we have seen in the case of Armenia, Turkey will be in an even better position to live up to its valued role as mediator. A role that fits well with your geographical position, strategically placed between East and West.

This brings me to Turkey’s prospects for accession to the European Union. I have always been very clear: the Netherlands will uphold its promise to welcome Turkey as a member of the EU if Turkey satisfies all the accession criteria. There is no misunderstanding about our commitment, nor about what needs to be done; the requirements are clear. Since Prime Minister Erdoğan took office seven years ago, an impressive reform agenda has been in the works. At first, progress was good, but in the past couple of years the pace has slowed down considerably. That is regrettable, since tangible reforms and adherence to the Copenhagen criteria will not only increase European support for Turkish membership but are also clearly in the interest of the Turkish people. But let me end on a positive note: there have been some encouraging developments recently. As I just mentioned, relations with Armenia have visibly improved, which is much to your credit, Ahmet. Positive steps have also been taken with regard to the position of the Kurdish minority.

We are currently awaiting the European Commission’s progress report, which will give a formal indication of where we stand in the negotiations. One thing is clear: it will always be concrete results that matter. What I have said before still holds true: the Netherlands stands ready to assist Turkey in implementing its reform agenda: through specific projects, certainly, but also through meetings such as today’s. We may be a critical partner, but we also hope to be a constructive one.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is the third time in the past year-and-a-half that Turkey and the Netherlands have held these bilateral consultations, which we have dubbed the Wittenburg Conference – because that’s where it all started back in March 2008. I have been present on all three occasions and I must say that it's turning into a very nice tradition! And a highly useful one too: these consultations not only provide an opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest, they also help us establish useful contacts, create greater understanding and promote cooperation that is beneficial to both countries. So I am delighted, once again, to welcome you all to the Netherlands, and I wish you all a very productive meeting.

Thank you.

1 Sunday’s Zaman, 13 September 2009.