ANKARA: Turkey and the European Union

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
Jan 30 2007

Turkey and the European Union


There seem to be further difficulties in Turkey’s application to join
the European Union.

Some relate to cultural and political aspects of the application, and
I will deal with these last. But first the economic questions. The
union is a market economy and new member states must meet certain
vague standards. But all the evidence suggests that Turkey has met
them better than the two newest member states, Bulgaria and Romania.
Unemployment is down to 10 percent, clearly lower than Bulgaria’s,
and agriculture has been reduced to 33 percent of the economy, less
than Romania at 42 percent. The government of Recep Erdogan has
pursued an orthodox conservative economic policy and has succeeded
where other, more overtly free, market governments have conspicuously
failed. Inflation, which raged for 25 years, is now a thing of the
past. Economic growth is at a spectacular 7.5 percent per annum and
has been for the past five years. But per capita income is at $8,400;
this still some way behind the EU average of $28100. This is partly
because the country has been a little slow to expand in the higher
valued areas of production and services. Although employment in
agriculture is now down to 28 percent, the average in Europe is 5
percent. But this is changing rapidly. Turkey now produces 53 percent
of all European TVs and is moving into automobiles and high-tech
electronic goods. But improvement here will require massive
investment in education to produce a workforce equipped to cope with
the demands of globalization.
Compared to the EU there are far too few women in full-time
employment and too few of the jobs here are what Europeans would call
regular, salaried full-time employment. Indeed there is a large
informal economy in Turkey. The regional variations in income between
the relatively impoverished rural east and the prosperous west will
not please the egalitarians in Brussels. But there are similar income
discrepancies in other European countries and surely the bureaucrats
in Brussels will not expect a Scandinavian utopia overnight from an
economy that has experienced some turmoil in the past 30 years?
Perhaps the European skeptics are concerned about Turkey’s free trade
credentials and have the country’s prohibition of Cyprus vessels
docking in its ports in mind. But that relates to the political
objections to Turkey’s entry into the EU rather than the strictly
economic. And it must not be forgotten that Turkish Cyprus has been
almost completely isolated by the rest of the world. And it is the
Greek Cypriots who have resisted reunification of the island.
When it comes to economics Turkey has a good case: it is certainly
better than Bulgaria’s or Romania’s and is as good as Spain and
Portugal’s when they applied. Of course, there is still much to do,
not least absorbing the acquis communitaire, the myriad and ever
expanding set of rules and regulations of business that each new
member must accept as a condition of entry. But Turkey’s economy is
thriving at the moment, and the wise and prudent economic stewardship
of Erdogan’s government has made it capable of coping with the new
conditions of the European Union. Furthermore, it has a young
population, average age 28, which puts it in a better long-term
position than those of France, Germany and Italy, whose ageing
populations will impose a tremendous burden on their workers in the
near future for the payment of state pensions.
At the end of the day one feels that it won’t be economics that bars
Turkey’s entry into Europe: there is a genuine fear that Europe’s
Christian culture will not be able to absorb over 70 million Muslims.
There is definite hostility to Turkey in France, and the government
has promised a referendum before it will agree to the acceptance of
the country. And Germany and Italy have populations with similar
predispositions. All this seems rather strange from a continent that
loudly displays its secularism. Most countries of old Europe have
abandoned their Christian heritage. And it also shows a complete lack
of knowledge of Turkey, whose secularism, in unpropitious
circumstances, is as rigorous as theirs.
And then there is the question of civil liberties, which seems to
interest European politicians more than economics these days, and
they are anxious to put Turkey in the dock on three issues. First
there is the alleged `Armenian genocide,’ then the problem of Kurdish
separatism and the abiding complaint that in Turkey the military has
too great a say in politics.
I deliberately say `alleged’ Armenian genocide since there is genuine
disagreement among reputable historians about what exactly took place
in World War I. Undoubtedly there was harsh treatment of the Armenian
minority, but was it a genocide? Probably not, and we must remember
that it also took place in extraordinary times: Turkey was fearful of
Russia and a potentially subversive minority posed a serious problem.
But France is convinced of Turkey’s guilt and has passed a law making
`Armenian genocide denial’ a criminal offence.
Well, the French are very fond of moralizing, but not about their own
behavior in Algeria, for example. Most European hostility to Turkey
is much governed by ignorance, and this is undoubtedly true of the
Kurdish question. There was some denial for the Kurds of the use of
their own language and they were deprived of their broadcasting
rights. But their freedoms have been increased in recent years, and
let us not forget: the Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK, was the most
brutal in Europe, if not the world. They were responsible for at
least 30,000 deaths. Britain has had serious problems with the IRA
and Spain with ETA but these groups do not compare in ferocity with
the PKK. There have also been occasions in Turkey when the military
has taken power, but only for brief periods, and civilian rule has
been quickly restored. And, anyway, the military in Turkey has been a
force for secularism and compared to most military rulers has been
relatively benign.
On the whole Turkey is as well-qualified as most regimes for
membership in the European Union. But the ultimate question needs to
be asked by the Turks themselves: Do they really want or need to
join? Economically the country is doing quite well, and it is not at
all clear that it would benefit from membership of the EU. It already
does 53 percent of its trade with Europe, and that will continue
whatever the outcome of their application. And do they wish to join
what is now a laggard economy, with constricting regulations and a
declining share of world trade? It is not like some rapidly
expanding, young Far Eastern economy. Turkey, with its vigor, is more
like these economies rather than the sleeping giant of the European
The only reason for Turkey joining Europe was political: it is
perhaps the final destination of Ataturk’s dream of transforming a
near-medieval theocratic state into an advanced country,
industrialized and characterized by civility and the rule of law. It
can have all these things without the French 35-hour maximum working

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