21st Oct 2019


Turkey as an Asset

The relationship between Turkey and the EU has a long history. The Association Agreement (Ankara Agreement) with the European Communities was signed in 1963.

On the basis of this Association Agreement, Turkey and the EU concluded a Customs Union in the mid 1990s, and Turkey was subsequently declared a candidate country at the 1999 Helsinki European Council.

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On October 6, 2004 the European Commission recognized the immense progress Turkey has made and recommended that the Council open accession negotiations. Assuming that the EU fulfils its promises, Turkey is expected to start negotiations soon after the December 17th European Council.

So far there have been numerous encouraging gestures from the EU side. The British, Germans, Italians, Slovaks and the Greeks, in addition to many others, have publicly declared their support. The European Green party's Convention was held in Turkey in mid-October to mark their backing.

Turkey: a special case

Despite all this, less than a week before the European summit, the outcome still remains uncertain. As the current debate in most EU countries shows, Turkey is being viewed as a special case.

The size, demography, economy, geography, but most of all the culture of the country are all regarded as a burden by many in the EU. From France to Slovakia, from Austria to Poland, people fear that Turkey may "Islamize" Christian Europe. Many believe that hoards of Turkish workers will flood "Europe" and "steal" jobs from the indigenous Europeans.

Most of these concerns are unjustified and far from the reality, but they need to be addressed. There are also those like the Greek Cypriots who want to use the membership issue for their own ends. Whatever the concerns, one should not forget that the conditions for membership are set out in the Treaty of Rome and more recently in the "draft" Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe.

Any state wishing to become a member must accept the Union's values as enumerated in Article 2 of the Constitutional Treaty, namely "respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights". These values were previously stated in the 1993 Copenhagen European Council decision. Since the Helsinki summit in 1999, compliance with only the political criteria has been required of potential members in order to begin accession negotiations.

Evolution of mentalities

Needless to say, Turkey is not yet a haven of human rights. There are still areas in urgent need of rectification. Nevertheless, in a relatively short period of time Turkey has adopted nine major reform packages. Several articles of the Constitution have been amended, the death penalty has been abolished, and most of the restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of association have been removed.

The Commission has said that Turkey is going through a radical change, including a rapid evolution of mentalities. It is in the interests of all that the current transformation process continue.

Cyprus problem

With regard to the Turkish "special case", it is also important to mention the Cyprus problem. In addition to the "classical" Copenhagen criteria, EU Councils since the Dublin Summit in 1996 have asked Turkey to use its position and influence in support of a settlement of the Cyprus problem in line with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. The same demand was repeated at the 1999 Helsinki meeting.

This extra criterion was later labelled by outgoing EU Commission President Romano Prodi as "not a real precondition but a political reality". In line with this extra requirement, the Turkish government encouraged the Turkish side on the island to reach a compromise on the basis of the plan prepared by the UN, known as the ‘Annan Plan’.

After lengthy negotiations, the plan was submitted to simultaneous referenda on both sides of the island. It was not an easy task to convince the Turkish Cypriots to support the plan. The proposed solution foresaw dislocation of two thirds of the Turkish Cypriot population, and it was obviously hard to explain to them that such a solution was best for them and their families. But nevertheless, 65% of the Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the plan in the referendum on April 24th.

However, since more than 74 percent of the Greek Cypriots voted against the co-habitation of both communities in a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation, the plan was rendered null and void.

The internationally recognized Greek part joined the EU and the Greek Cypriot Government continues to be considered the sole political representative of the whole island. The previous status quo - namely the international isolation of the Turkish Cypriots and the de facto division of the island - continues to prevail and leads the Greek Cypriot side to view the decision on Turkish accession negotiations as an opportunity for political leverage to impose their own preferred settlement.

The debate

Leaving aside the technical conditions, as well as principle of pacta sunt servanda [i.e. that agreements must be fulfilled], the on-going - and heated - debate in European forums has acquired a totally different character. This protracted discussion is no longer about the extent that Turkey fulfills the Copenhagen criteria but rather about Turkey’s "European" credentials.

In other words, the Europeans are questioning more and more whether Turkey is intrinsically compatible with Europe, rather than whether it has fulfilled the membership obligations.

But Turkey’s application also appears to touch another raw nerve: namely, the question of what exactly is a European identity. The debate on Turkey has in fact become a debate on this point. While judging Turkey and where it is headed, the EU is also shaping its own character and limits.

The initiation of accession negotiations will further stimulate this debate and will lead to a final compromise. The secular nature of the Turkish state is likely to feed into this debate. Besides, in the process leading to membership ever larger numbers of people in EU countries will come to realize Turkey’s potential to assist in achieving a harmonization of civilizations.

Religion secondary

To be sure, Turkey is a country with a predominantly Muslim population. Over 90% of Turks are Muslims; the remainder are divided more or less evenly between Christians and Jews. But leaving this point aside, in terms of identity the majority refer to themselves primarily as Turks and only secondarily as Muslims.

By a large margin, Turkish Muslims strongly reject fundamentalism and religious intolerance. They are representatives of a moderate Islam highly tolerant of other religions.

This can be considered a legacy of Ottoman imperial history as well as of the reforms of the early republican period. Seen from the EU perspective on the other hand, the problem with Turkish Islam does not lie in its influence over the Turkish state, but rather its control by the state.

Although religion is neither a condition nor a criterion for EU accession, more than 60% of Turks believe that if the decision of the Council in December is negative, it will be on religious grounds that they are being "refused", and that double standards are being applied because they are not Christians.

For many Turks, the issues of the size of the country and of its population, the nature of the neighbours, and its economic problems are mere pretexts utilized by the Europeans.

It is doubtless naïve to claim that these factors will not affect the functioning of the EU in any way. On the other hand, their impact is often over-dramatized and statements are generally based on prejudice.

Too large for Europe

Turkey is a country of 780,576 square km. It is almost the size of Germany and France together. But Turkey’s geographical size will hardly cause problems for the "current Europeans". The enormous amounts of minerals and raw materials, Turkey’s key position as a transit country for crude oil, and its water resources, all of these are unlikely to be unwelcome additions to the resource base of a future Europe. However, it is a fact that a vast territory usually brings a vast population.

Despite declining birth rates (since 1970 these have dropped from 3.5 to 2.5 children per woman), Turkey’s population is expected to reach 80 million in 2015. Demographic size and the relative poverty of Turkey are factors giving rise to concerns about prospective migration and a consequent flooding of the European labour market with "millions of uneducated Turks."

On the question of possible migration, it is important to highlight some facts. There are currently about 3.8 millions Turks living in the EU, most of them "uneducated" workers.

Up to 60% of these Euro-Turks would like to return to Turkey once Turkey becomes a EU member (CEPS Turkey in Europe Monitor, May 2004). On the other hand, surveys show that those Turks who would eventually like to leave for Europe tend to be those who have gone through higher education.

Many of this latter group are graduates of either American or European universities. Those who decided to stay in Turkey to study were able to choose among more than 50 state universities and 15 private ones, many of them of world-class standards and repute (These figures do not include military universities and special status universities).

Nor is it unimportant that the unemployment rate in Turkey is not significantly different from that in EU countries. In 2002, less than one year after Turkey suffered one of its worst ever economic crises and after hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, the unemployment rate in the country was 10.6%, compared with 10% in Greece and 19.9% in Poland.

Furthermore, bearing in mind the chronically low labour productivity in the Euro zone and consequent low GDP growth, the EU should not look at possible immigration from Turkey as an unwanted phenomenon.

From a long-term perspective, one must take into account the fact that the working population in Europe will decrease by about 40 million by the year 2050; in other words there will be only two people working to pay the pension of every European aged 65 and over.

Turkey’s young and active labor force might be welcome in these circumstances, particularly when the EU is looking to catch up with the ambitious aims outlined in the Lisbon agenda.

Negotiations, not accession

The December decision is about a date for starting negotiations, not about accession. It is highly likely that once the talks begin they will not finish any earlier than the Spanish accession talks, which lasted for 8 years. With respect to the dynamics, both the EU and Turkey are changing, and it would be very courageous to foresee what impact Turkey will have on European institutions.

Turkey’s size will very probably be reflected in the Council and Parliament but not in the operating of the Commission. If double majority voting in the Council is introduced, as proposed in the EU constitutional treaty, 55% of the member countries representing 65% of the population of the EU will be required for a decision to be adopted.

In order to block a proposal even two big countries like Germany and Turkey acting together would not have enough voting power. They would need another big player. According to some analysts, this will result in a fairer position with EU structures for smaller members. Turkey will have strong representation in the European Parliament. But it should not be forgotten that in the Parliament voting usually reflects party policies rather than national interests.

Turkey is big demographically and geographically but its economic size is rather modest. As a result, the financial burden that it would impose on the EU would be quite limited (especially if regulations are in effect which limit the amount that a recipient country can draw from structural funds to a maximum of 4% of its own GDP).

However, any projections with respect to Turkey’s possible impact on the EU budget can only be highly speculative, since it is impossible to predict with any accuracy what the EU’s budgetary rules will be in ten years’ time or so …

The authors are Dr. Sylvia Tiryaki, Faculty member of the Istanbul Culture University and Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mensur Akgün, Faculty member of the Istanbul Culture University and Foreign Policy Director of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation.

© 2004 Euroword BANNS


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

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