Next Monday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will pay his first visit to Italy as president. In light of the critical international circumstances and long-standing bilateral relations, among other issues, custom union modernization and lifting European visa requirements for Turkish nationals are expected to be addressed in the usual, warm atmosphere, despite some protests that have been already announced. Some issues seem to polarize public opinion due to a lack of knowledge or to some ideological bias that hardly makes a distinction on terrorist organizations. However, the Italian government has always been resolute in condemning any action against Turkey's territorial integrity. Indeed, Turkey and Italy are more than simple friends. The relation is based on an instinctive sympathy, further consolidated even at time of crisis, as was evident with the unfortunate July 15 events when Italy promptly expressed its sincere support for Turkish democracy, which was reiterated when former Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni last visited Ankara in October 2016.
The countries' diplomatic relations are 162 years old and have seen an uninterrupted exchange of institutional visits at every level in spite of the political orientation of the governments. As a unique case in the history of Italian diplomacy, it is worth mentioning the exceptional extension from four to seven years, from 2004 to 2010, of former Italian Ambassador to Ankara Carlo Marsili's tenure upon some specific friendly pressure from the Turkish government. Turks and Italians share common faith from their common historical Mediterranean roots. It was through the contact with the sea that the emerging Ottoman Empire became a naval power, and it assumed a significant commercial role in that same area that was previously very important for the Genoese and Venetians. Over the centuries, Turkey and Italy built important historical ties. Culturally close to each other, the exchanges are currently growing thanks to the precious activity of the respective cultural centers. The opening of a Yunus Emre Institute in Rome in 2014 had the effect of increasing the demand for the Turkish language in Italy, while there was a boom in the number of Turkish students in Italy. On the other side, there is the Italian presence in Turkey at the level of academics and researchers. Nevertheless, the convergence between Turkey and Italy involves many key areas. Mutual interest in enhancing the strategic partnership based on complementarity was proven last year. Istanbul hosted the first Joint Economic and Trade Commission (JETCO) meeting attended by Italian Economic and Development Minister Carlo Calenda and Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci. All the positive remarks were given at the last Italy-Turkey Forum of Dialogue among societies held in Rome last November with both Foreign Ministers Angelino Alfano and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in attendance.
From an economic perspective, Italy is Turkey's fourth-largest European trade partner, and Turkey plays a strategic role for Italy's economy. Currently, around 50 Turkish companies operate in Italy, and 1,400 Italian companies are in Turkey. In 2017, the trade volume was $19.7 billion, confirming the prefixed target of both countries. The backbone of the complementarity of the production systems pivots on the vibrant dynamism of Turkish and Italian small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), aimed to extend to third markets as well. Cooperation is mainly based on automotive, defense and infrastructure, while tourism and agribusiness are on the rise. The consolidated presence of large groups from Italian manufacturing industry, such as Fiat, Barilla and Ferrero, in the main Turkish industrial clusters with their own production facilities; the participation of large Italian companies in the infrastructural development of Turkey, such as Astaldi, which built the third bridge over the Bosporus; and the important role of Italian banks, such as Unicredit's participation in Yapikredi, are all excellent examples of functioning joint ventures. To provide some recent estimates, in 2017, the leading company Ferrero in its chocolate production bought nuts from Turkey for $900 million, equal to 32 percent of Turkish nut production, which is around 750,000 tons. Moreover, in defense cooperation, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Italian company Leonardo, a member of the Eurosam consortium, for study in the development and production of a long-range air and missile defense system.
Nevertheless, located at the center of the south-north and east-west corridors, Turkey and Italy are important transit countries, but also significant consumers of energy. This connection has helped to solidify ties in energy diplomacy by providing the basis for implementing strategic projects such as the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The euro-Mediterranean dimension plays an important role in converging security concerns in the region. The main priority of Italian and Turkish policies is to avoid spillover effects to their borders and the whole region. This is not to say that Italy and Turkey have always seen eye to eye on major international questions, but in a changing regional system, cooperation in facing the new challenges from terrorism and migration is reinforcing both at bilateral and multilateral levels. On the southern side of NATO, the mutual support has been constant to the point that following a request from Ankara, Rome has been deploying an anti-missile battery as a defense measure since 2016.
Moreover, no one better than Italy can appreciate the Turkish commitment to grant generous and dignified assistance to some 3.5 million refugees in the country. Italy has always been a strong supporter of Ankara's EU membership bid, even though the accession process is currently de facto frozen. Naturally, not only would EU membership assist Turkey to successfully complete its democratization and modernization processes, it would also allow Europe, with Turkey in its fold, to rise to the Mediterranean challenge in its neighborhood. In other words, both are working to protect their interests; Italy, with its experience in technical aid and Turkey with its relations with both EU and the Middle East, have the potential to further combine their capabilities and increase the effectiveness of their capacity building in the region and toward new international realities.
*Assistant professor at University of Turkish Aeronautical Association, Ankara