13th Apr 2024


Happy Anniversary? EU-Turkey relations at age 50

  • 'EU-Turkey relations are a succession of missed opportunities, miscalculations and serious disagreements' (Photo: svenwerk)

On 12 September 1963 leaders of the European Economic Community and Turkey met in Ankara. They signed an Association Agreement– the Ankara Agreement - with the objective “to promote the continuous and balanced strengthening of trade and economic relations between the Parties.”

Half a century has passed. And yet, while the bonds created in 1963 are solid the EU-Turkey relationship suffers from enduring and deep distrust. Not only are there no fireworks today, in either Turkey or in the EU, but there is also no meaningful debate about what this association has brought or what it means for the future.

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In the view of many, the association it created never fulfilled its potential. From this perspective EU-Turkey relations are a succession of missed opportunities, miscalculations and serious disagreements. In the mid-1970s, when some West European leaders urged Turkey to submit an application for full membership (together with Greece), the Turkish government refused, missing a golden opportunity.

In the early 1980s, while Spain shed the remnants of an authoritarian tradition, Turkey was ruled by a military junta after another military coup. In the 1990s, as Central Europeans embraced democracy and human rights and set out to “return to Europe”, Turkey fought an internal counter-insurgency that included horrific human rights abuses, widespread torture and state-sanctioned killings. EU members have also often shown Turkey the cold shoulder, breaking promises, ignoring their own commitments. The result is sour relations, overshadowed by a stalled EU-accession process.

Ever closer integration

On the other hand, the vision of ever closer integration outlined in the Ankara Agreement in 1963 has in fact become a reality. The envisaged customs union was concluded in 1995. Far from slowing down, the process accelerated in the past decade.

This is obvious from statistics on trade, on travel, on the stock and flow of foreign direct investment – and, of course, from the launch of accession talks in 2005. To appreciate the solidity of the bonds created between the EU and Turkey it suffices to contrast this relationship with the turbulent evolution of Turkey’s relations with other countries in the past five years, whether Iran or Iraq, Russia or Armenia, Syria or Lebanon, Israel or Egypt.

Since 1963 one change has begot another, leading to a chain reaction. The Ankara Agreement has created a community with mutual interests as well as tensions bringing further convergence of norms and ambitions. The institutions created fifty years ago are still around. The Association Council continues to meet. Economic and trade relations have deepened at an ever accelerating pace. All this has made a difference to the lives of millions of individuals. This anniversary is a good moment then to take stock: where does the Turkish-EU relationship stand today? And where is it going?

Change and Turkey’s new generation

In the past half century both Turkey and the EU have changed dramatically. In 1963 Turkey was reeling from the consequences of its first military coup and the execution of its first democratically elected prime minister, Adnan Menderes.

It was an overwhelmingly rural and very poor country. The majority of Turks, and the large majority of Turkish women, was illiterate. In 1963 the European Economic Community had six members. France was emerging from a long colonial war in Algeria and a coup attempt in 1961. Germany was divided, the Berlin Wall just two years old. Spain and Portugal were ruled by dictators, while Central and Eastern Europe was in the hand of communist regimes.

In the past half century fascist, communist and military regimes have collapsed across Europe. The EU has grown from six members with a population of some 170 million to twenty-eight members with half a billion people. The average life expectancy in Turkey rose from 48 years in 1963 to 74 today.

The core idea of the Ankara Agreement, that increased interaction leads to prosperity and benefits both sides, is as valid now as ever. However, when it comes to people to people contact we find huge, untapped potential to take the EU-Turkey association to a different level.

Some 31 million Turks are today below 24 years of age. This is the most educated generation in Turkey’s history. The number of pupils attending Turkish secondary schools has doubled in one decade. The number of university students has more than tripled, between 2000 and 2012, from 1 million to 3.5 million.

This is a generation hungry for educational opportunities. In 2006 Turkey had 93 universities (25 private). In 2010 the number was 166 (now 61 private). In 2010 more than 1.7 million people took the Turkish national university admission exam. Of these only 560,000 were able to enrol. The share of education spending in the central budget went from 9 percent in 2003 to 16 percent in 2013.

Such rapid growth creates challenges. Raising the quality of education in all these new institutions is one of those challenges. In the OECD’s PISA tests, which measure pupils’ competency level in science, mathematics and reading, Turkey ranked 32nd among 34 OECD countries in 2009.

Here also lies one of the big opportunities for Turkish society: there is a lot of room to improve the education of the current generation of pupils, and this is certain to have an immediate, potentially dramatic, impact on the Turkey of the future. It is one of the biggest development challenges Turkey faces today.

What will this young generation feel about Europe? One striking fact is that the vast majority of the current generation of young Turks have no personal experience of the EU. A recent survey found that only one in ten young Turks (age 15 to 29) has ever left the country. At the same time Turkey has the highest number of people in Europe not speaking any foreign language in Europe. A 2012 report by TOEFL, the international English testing company, showed that Turkey had the lowest scores in Europe, on the level of Sudan and Algeria.

With the exceptions of some elite universities in Istanbul most Turkish students are still unlikely to meet other Europeans at their own universities. Only 3,500 full time students and another 4,000 Erasmus students, who come only for a few months, are from EU countries in all of Turkey. The number of Turkish Erasmus students abroad – some 10,000 in 2010 - is just one third of the number of French Erasmus students. It is much lower than the number of Erasmus students from (much smaller) Poland.

It’s still visa, stupid

It is paradoxical: the number of Turks travelling abroad increased from 3.5 to 6 million between 2003 and 2012. However, the biggest increase was in the number of travellers going to Georgia, Syria, East Asia, Iran and Azerbaijan. So what can the EU and Turkey do?

A lot, it turns out. There are two EU countries which saw a similarly strong increase in Turkish visitors in this period: Greece and Italy. It is no coincidence that Italy and Greece are also countries with very low Schengen visa application rejection rates – less than 1 percent.

All EU member states should strive to reject as few applicants as possible, emulating Italy and Greece. All should increase the share of multiple-entry visas with a validity of up to five years. In 2012 the share of Schengen multiple-entry visas was still only 50 per cent!

The most important step for increasing people to people contacts, however, would be to move to full visa liberalisation. As ESI argued in a recent report - “Cutting the Visa Knot. How Turks can travel freely to Europe” – this particular ball is today in Turkey’s court. Turkey should cut the Gordian knot of visa-free travel, sign a readmission agreement and accept the offer of a visa liberalisation dialogue with the EU. The 50th anniversary of the Ankara Agreement is an appropriate occasion for both the EU and Turkey to get serious about making the European idea of free movement– central to the vision of 1963 – a reality for Turkey’s young generation.

The EU (also) speaks Turkish

At the same time there is another issue where EU and in particular the Republic of Cyprus might take a step forward: progress towards making Turkish an official EU language.

EU regulations are clear: any official language of an EU member state can also be an official EU language. Three countries have indicated to the EU that they have more than one official language: Finland (Swedish and Finnish), Belgium (French, Dutch and German) and Ireland (English and Irish). According to Article 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus, Greek and Turkish are even now the country’s two official languages.

In early 2004 it was already widely expected that Turkish would soon be added to the list of EU official languages. Cypriot passports contain text in Greek as well as Turkish and English. The Cypriot EU Presidency website had a Turkish version. All it takes is for Cyprus to put its second official language forward to the EU institutions. This would be one of the most visible and concrete ways to make Turks feel part of the common Europe.

Reaching out

In the case of the relationship between Turkey and the EU after half a century of association divorce is simply not an option. Like a coral reef, the structures of association established in 1963 between the then European Economic Community and Turkey have continued to develop through myriad individual efforts. So much so that they are today mostly taken for granted.

European and Turkish civil society institutions and foundations could take a lead to bring together the young generations. They should systematically study all relevant European experiences – school partnerships, youth exchange programs, optimal use of existing EU exchange programmes - to foster more exchange between teachers, pupils, students, vocational school.

European institutions interested in the future of the EU-Turkish relationship should look closer at what they might do to help Turkey bridge its foreign linguistic gap. Some European countries, such as Poland and Estonia, have a recent experience in closing the foreign language gap.

Above all, both the EU and Turkey should make a serious effort to make progress towards lifting the visa requirement for Turkish citizens. The paradox is that today an estimated one million Turks can travel visa-free to the EU on special (so-called “green”) passports, given to civil servants, without any complications or problems in the EU. It is the young Turks, however, who are most likely to be refused a visa.

There is no need for fireworks: much better to celebrate the anniversary of the Association Agreement by focusing on its future.

This means focusing on further lowering barriers to trade, travel and communication. The best way to commemorate this anniversary is not to revisit the past but to focus on the future. To look to the generation – in Turkey and in the EU – that will shape the next half century; and to propose concrete ideas that highlight the potential that continues to exist in the Turkey-EU relationship.

Gerald Knaus is chairman and Lucia Goberna analyst with the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, based in Berlin and Istanbul. ESI’s work on Turkey-EU relations is supported by Stiftung Mercator.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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