European Affairs

Economic Crisis May Push Turkey Toward The EU     Print Email
Yalim Eralp

Turkey's relationship with the European Union has been a complicated one, to say the least. The main reason is that Europeans have not considered Turkey as one of their own. Statements to the effect that the EU is based on Christian values have been numerous, and the Turkish public has considered these statements as warnings that Turkey may not succeed in its ambition to become a member.

There is no doubt that there is an element of truth in how Turks have perceived these warnings. Turks, by and large, give credence to Professor Samuel Huntington's theory of a forthcoming "Clash of Civilizations" along fault lines dividing different cultures and religions.

Indeed, both former Prime Ministers Tansu Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz used this argument effectively to their counterparts in the EU. And Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's new Prime Minister, appears to have added fuel to the fire with his recent remarks about the "superiority" of Western civilization over that of Islam.

On the other hand, Turks have also in the past been ambivalent about the benefits of EU membership. Slogans such as "We will be the market, they will be the owners" have been in vogue even in intellectual circles, including in the Foreign Ministry. The present Prime Minister Mr. Bulent Ecevit has been cool toward the EU.

Turkey is a big, populous country, by European standards, with geopolitical importance. Despite progress, its democracy and its future as a secular state are not seen as stable by the outside world.

But Turkey's border with the EU and its long economic and political relationship with the Brussels institutions mean that the EU cannot ignore it. If left outside the European integration process, Turkey's future policies could become unpredictable.

The country's present regime could be endangered, and ultra-nationalism or radical religious elements could prevail, making Turkey a headache for the EU. I would call this aspect Turkey's "nuisance value." This, anyway, was the general picture before EU leaders declared Turkey a formal candidate for membership at their Helsinki summit meeting in December, 1999.

The demise of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era in the whole world, but perhaps first and foremost in Europe. Both NATO and the EU soon began the process of enlargement to include new members to their East.

Turks were left in a dilemma. On the one hand, EU enlargement showed that the EU was not following a closed door policy; on the other hand, Turkey was not welcome. Here was Turkey, a staunch member of the Atlantic Alliance, which had been a bulwark of the West against the Soviet Union, left out of the integration process, while former Communist states were moving ahead of it in the line to join the EU.

Turks were furious - and they still are. The Ciller Government tried to bargain Turkey's EU membership against Polish, Czech and Hungarian NATO membership by threatening to block the three countries' entry into the Alliance. The Americans "convinced" the Turkish Government that this was not a wise policy.

There was another reason for Turkish anger. Turkey was the only country that had to go through a customs union arrangement before EU membership, another reason for Turkish doubts as to the EU's intentions. Many Turks continue to believe that with the customs union in place, the EU has no interest in granting Turkey full membership. Turks felt more and more that they were the victims of discrimination.

Many started to ask: "Did we have to go through communism to qualify for EU membership?" Turkey felt betrayed as an ally. Many said that since the Cold War was over the West did not need Turkey any more. Even the present Foreign Minister Ismail Cem has publicly blamed the Cold War for retarding Turkey's democratic evolution - a dubious theory since ex-Communist states have overtaken Turkey in meeting EU democratic standards.

Turkey started a campaign to prove that it was economically better prepared for EU membership than some other candidate countries. Statistics and booklets were prepared. The inclusion of Bulgaria and Romania in the list of EU candidates further infuriated Turks since at that time Turkey was trying to help those countries in their transition to market economies.

Even as Turkey was campaigning, however, it was ignoring the tremendous reforms being undertaken by other candidate countries. The present economic crisis in Turkey has demonstrated that Turkish claims of economic readiness for EU membership were not so realistic.

Turks are now envious in particular of Bulgaria and Romania as foreign investment pours into those countries. Even many Turkish companies are moving out of Turkey and setting up there. Turkish pride has been tremendously hurt.

The Turkish public now understands that for many years the country has been misruled. Precious money was spent on unrealistic projects. Many airports were built but are not used. There are no §ights because there are no passengers!

Other glaring examples of waste include the many universities that have been established without either buildings or professors, and inefficient subsidies to farmers. Turkey recently had to swallow its pride and bow to every dictum of the International Monetary Fund in order to qualify for financial support. Unfortunately, pressure to reform has once again come from the outside.

Turks have been humbled by the present economic crisis. Mr. Ecevit, after almost 50 years in politics, has finally understood that the country's rules and regulations prevent foreign investment.

The declaration by the EU that Turkey is a candidate on equal footing with the other candidates has helped to ease some of the concerns about EU intentions towards Turkey. But certain anxieties remain.

Many Turks believe that the declaration is simply an EU plot to buy time and that, in the final analysis, Turkey will not be permitted to become a member. Some continue to think that the EU will offer Turkey a special arrangement in lieu of membership.

As it looks at the wider enlargement process, Turkey believes it has been a clear loser, since the Central and Eastern European countries were given priority. This has meant more investment in those countries, and more aid.

Until it was declared a candidate in 1999, Turkey had not received any financial assistance since 1980. Even after the entry into force of the customs union, Turkey still received no assistance, despite EU legal obligations.

Another aspect of enlargement that will have a negative implication for Turkey is the future evolution of the EU work force. It is estimated that many EU countries will need millions of new immigrant workers in the coming two decades, but Turkey will meet stiff competition in supplying them.

Central and Eastern European countries during this time will either be close to EU membership, or perhaps already members. Unlike in the 1960s, when tens of thousands of unskilled Turkish workers migrated to Western Europe, the EU countries will now have a choice. And there is no doubt that Central and Eastern European workers are better educated and more skilled than those from Turkey. Turks will again be the losers.

Turkish insecurity is not a recent phenomenon. It dates to a long history of "foreign plots" during the time of the Ottoman Empire. The national anthem even begins with the words, "Do not fearƒ" This needs to be underlined because it has a bearing on Turkish attitudes toward Cypriot membership in the European Union as well as Turkish views on European defense and security policy.

In recent times, Turks have had several bad experiences with the EU. First of all, when Greece applied for membership in the then European Community, Turkey received written assurances that Greek membership would not affect Turkey's relations with Brussels. The EU later reneged on that by simply saying the promise was not a vested right.

Secondly, despite legal obligations, Turkey was not given financial assistance. Free circulation of persons, also a legal obligation, was simply forgotten since it created huge problems, for Germany in particular.

These experiences force Turkey to be very cautious, particularly over the bid by the Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus to become a full EU member. In the 1950s it was agreed that Cyprus would not become a member of any organization in which both Greece and Turkey were not represented. EU members have put forward several arguments that this cannot apply to Cypriot membership in the EU.

If, however, the Cypriot problem is not solved before Cyprus joins, the island's division will pose a big challenge for the EU. It will also be a problem for Turkey, since such a situation would mean continued friction with the EU and possibly an end to Turkey's dreams of becoming an EU member.

Mr. Rauf Denktash, the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, is seen by many as an impediment to a solution. There is an element of truth in that.

The Greek Cypriots, however, are not really interested in a solution before EU entry, correctly believing that they will then have stronger leverage. They think that they can get a better deal after becoming a member.

Mr. Denktash faces several challenges. Turkish Cypriots are getting impatient, since many would like to join the EU. More and more, Mr. Denktash is being seen by the Turkish public as an obstacle to Turkey's joining the EU itself.

Mr. Denktash fears that three basic EU principles - free settlement, free circulation and the right to buy property - will eventually wipe out the Turkish part of Cyprus and make a mockery of any future agreement. I believe that Mr. Denktash should accept a bi-zonal federation as well as the three EU principles, but tie the entry into force of these principles to Turkish EU entry.

In any case, Turkey will try to establish that if a solution is found, Cypriot entry will not prevent Turkish membership later on. Turkey will also try to ensure that the Turkish part of Cyprus is not eliminated. As EU entry negotiations with Cyprus proceed, the coming months will be crucial both for Turkey and for the EU.

Another item of discord between the EU and Turkey has been the European Security and Defense Policy. There is no disagreement about what happens when the EU uses NATO assets: As an Alliance member, Turkey has a full voice. The question is what happens when the EU decides on an autonomous military operation, without recourse to NATO assets.

What if the EU acting together with Greece, which is, of course, a full EU member, undertakes an operation either in the Aegean or in Cyprus in the future? Turkey wants a full say because of her mistrust.

Even if a mechanism of consultation has been agreed upon, Turkish mistrust remains an element of great importance. Behind all the suspicion lies the undeniable fact that Europe has not embraced Turkey to the extent that it has, say, Poland or Hungary.

If Turkey were to join the EU, the mistrust would disappear and Turkey would be a good EU member. Although Turkey's relations with her Middle Eastern neighbors are not the same as the EU's relations with that part of the world, Turkey would adapt itself rather rapidly to EU policies - and perhaps affect those policies in a positive manner.

In the 1980s, Greece had a policy toward Libya, for example, that was different from that of the EU. Once Greece became an EU member, however, it adapted its policies. The EU has its own dynamics that favor the formation of a consensus.

The present Turkish economic crisis has been, in a way, the last straw. It has finally convinced the Turkish public that it is essential to join the EU. By and large, a consensus favoring EU membership seems to have emerged.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.