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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Turkey: much to ponder as EU restarts membership talks

Turkey: much to ponder as EU restarts membership talks

Turkey: much to ponder as EU restarts membership talks Anthony Harrington

Turkey's economy is a classic glass half full/half empty, depending on your personal bias. It has growth that the EU would love, but it has inflation way above 8% on most counts. The country's currency, the lira, got hammered in the recent emerging markets crisis, losing more than 10% of its value against the dollar, though the pressure is now easing again. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acquitted himself like a buffoon through the summer's democratic protests over plans to give Instanbul's Taksim Gezi Park to developers.

To add to his eyebrow-raising authoritarianism, and his determination to embed Islam more deeply into Turkish political life, Erdoğan seems to have no problem allowing crony capitalism to thrive under his leadership - not that you would find more than the gentlest hint of this in the recent IMF Article IV report on Turkey, where the IMF gently suggests that some "structural reforms" would be helpful.

Then there is the fact that the EU - whose most powerful members manifestly do not want to extend EU membership to Turkey - is once again going through the ritual of reconsidering the country's application for membership. There are huge pluses and glaring minuses involved in any future Turkish membership: one interesting collection of 'for' and 'against' arguments is presented with admirable clarity by Debating Europe.

Three main facts stand out:

- One. Extending the EU by absorbing Turkey gives the EU a border with Syria, Iran and Iraq, none of which make for happy neighbors just at present. Having Turkey in its present state as a buffer between the EU and those (to European eyes) impossible, undemocratic and internally driven Muslim states is a very satisfactory state of affairs.

- Two. With a population heading for 91 million, Turkey would be the heftiest member of the EU (Germany, the current most populous EU country, has a population of a mere 80 million). Not exactly an easy morsel for the EU to digest!

- Three. Turkey, or at least parts of the Turkish middle and political classes, has/have ambitions to be "just like" a secular European country with a capitalist economy - but Turkey is an Asian country through and through and is Muslim to the core. Christian Europe and Muslim Asia have been like oil and water for 1000 years, and making an emulsion of the two - despite the finest liberal traditions diminishing the importance of historical accidents such as race, nationality and religion - has proved, er, difficult...

The majority - probably the overwhelming majority - of the Germans and the French absolutely do not want to see free movement of millions of Turks into their economies, despite the boost this would give to exports due to cheaper labor costs. Racism would soar, which would be a significant problem for EU democracies that are already lurching to the right. France's Marine le Pen has never been so popular, even without the prospect of a near term Turkish entrance to the EU, while Greece's ultra-far-right Golden Dawn party, now proscribed, would probably see support skyrocket if Turkey's prospects of EU membership strengthened.

Against these negative arguments, there are a number of strong positives. Istanbul is a historic city: the ancient city of Byzantium was renamed Constantinople when it became the new capital of the Roman empire in 330 and has been an invaluable bridge between Europe and Asia ever since. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 brought an end to 1,500 years of Roman rule and placed the city firmly in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Given the city's Roman past, Turkey can claim a long history of being part of Europe, just as it has a long history of being part of Asia -making it an ideal crossing point for the EU to expand trade with Asia.

Debating Europe puts the positives well:

"As a member [of the EU], Turkey would re-invigorate Europe's relations with fast evolving regions like the energy rich Caucasus and Central Asia [as well as] the new Middle East that [is] emerging from the Arab Spring. Turkey's unique geo-strategic position plus the strength of NATO's second-largest army would greatly add to European security."

These are all key attractions, but the "second largest army" point is also a huge negative since Turkey's economy and political structure is skewed way out of shape by its bloated military budget and the conspicuous influence of the Turkish military in politics. Just what Europe needs? Probably not, in the eyes of many of its citizens. Joining the EU would also undoubtedly make middle class Turkey, which is the part that Europe is most attracted to, even more unpopular with fundamentalist Islam - but since fundamentalist Islam seems hell bent on the impossible mission of returning much of the world to a "perfect" medieval condition, it doesn't really seem possible for a modern democracy to move forward without annoying the fundamentalists. Again, not a problem the EU is desperately keen to take on board.

In fact, 2013 has been a real low in the long dance between Turkey and the EU. The heavy-handed crack down on protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park caused the Netherlands and Germany to block talks with Turkey in June, which would have mulled over where exactly Turkey stood in relation to a list of EU regulations that membership candidates must fulfill. Turkey's chief negotiator, Egemen Bagis said recently that Turkey "would probably never join the EU". The country's more realistic hope, he suggested, was that it would be able to negotiate special access to the EU market, à la Norway. On the other hand, pushing continuously for membership does not do Turkey any harm with potential inward investors, almost all of whom see tighter integration between the EU and Turkey as highly business friendly.

This dance still has a long way to run, it seems.

Further reading on Turkey and emerging markets




Tags: Asia , Byzantium , emerging market crisis , emerging markets , Erdogan , EU , EU membership , IMF , International Monetary Fund , Islam , Istanbul , military , Turkey
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