Owen Matthews

Ankara should be wary of Brussels

Turkish membership of the EU will be good for Europe, says Owen Matthews, but bad for Turkey

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Earlier this month Turkey’s bid to join the European Union crept past the tipping point from possibility to probability. The European Commission recommended that accession negotiations be opened with Ankara, and the outgoing enlargement commissioner Günter Verheugen announced that ‘no further obstacles remain’ on Turkey’s path. The news sent the Turkish press into frenzies of enthusiasm, with headlines screaming, ‘Europe, here we come!’, as though egging on the national sports team in the Euro championships, or a conquering Turkish army on its way to, say, Vienna. While no one was actually dancing in the streets, they no doubt will when the EU’s Council of Ministers sets a starting date for talks come December. Turkey joining the EU will be a great thing for the Union. However, despite the fact that most Turks equate entering the EU with winning the lottery, it will be a terrible thing for Turkey.

That Turkey will change the EU for the better is clear — the bigger the Union, the greater the centripetal forces within it, and the more difficult it will be to create a United States of Europe ruled from Brussels. When the former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, author of the controversial new European constitution, said that Turkey’s accession would be ‘the end of Europe’, he meant the end of an introspective, protectionist, over-regulated, Franco-German-dominated Europe. That’s exactly the reason why the French — with the rather odd exception of President Jacques Chirac — continue to oppose Turkish accession, and why British prime ministers have consistently supported it.

Sadly, the deal doesn’t look so good for Turkey itself. As Daniel Hannan has so forcefully argued in these pages, countries like Iceland and Norway, which have chosen to stay on the fringes of the Union but not be in it, can reap great economic benefits. This is especially true of Turkey, which, unlike the above-mentioned countries, has the added competitive advantage of a huge, cheap labour market. Turkey has the best of both worlds — it is in Europe’s customs union, and can trade freely with the EU while remaining outside its constrictive practices such as the social chapter, the 48-hour week and the crushing raft of health and safety and environmental legislation which make it so expensive to do business inside Europe. Turkey is ideally placed to be Europe’s outsourcing paradise. It has inexpensive skilled labour, and land and construction costs are low, as are the cost of living and transportation. In an ideal world, Turkey would do far better if it worked to cut down on its own corruption and bureaucracy (instead of importing Brussels’s), make foreign investment easier by scrapping regulation (instead of increasing it), and foster a functional banking sector. True, the EU will give structural funds to ease the costs of implementing all the bells and whistles of the 80,000-page acquis communautaire, but the bottom line is that Turkey, in implementing them, will be systematically undermining its competitiveness.

Pro-European Turks (who make up about 75 per cent of the population, according to newspaper opinion polls) are understandably enthused by the idea of free money from Brussels, and point out that European cash fuelled booms in Ireland and Spain, and have transformed Greek and Portuguese living standards. They hope for the same effect. But it isn’t going to happen. Times have changed since the free-spending, motorway-building, enterprise-park-sponsoring days of the 1980s, and the structural-fund cupboard will be pretty bare in a decade’s time, once the Eastern Europeans have finished raiding it. The other great lures of Europe — visa-free travel and work, and agricultural subsidies — will also lose their glitter by the time Turkey is ready to join. Already the Commission’s report has suggested ‘indefinite’ restrictions on freedom of movement for Turks even after they join, and similar derogations on the CAP which will effectively exclude Turkey’s farmers from the subsidy trough, while at the same time forcing restrictive quotas upon them.

Sadly, one of the most compelling arguments for Turkey joining Europe is a negative one: the kind of reforms which are currently transforming Turkey into an open society are only possible when underpinned by the promise of EU membership. Turkey’s reformers have always been inspired by imported models. Starting from the Tanzimat reforms of 1839, when Sultan Abd-ul-Medjid created a Western-style army and began wearing frock coats, reform in Turkey has always been synonymous with the adoption of European ways. General Kemal Atatürk, the avatar and founder of modern Turkey, set the pattern for today’s intercourse with Brussels — better to serve in the heaven of European civilisation than reign in the hell of the Middle East. Turkey’s current Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has done more to transform Turkey in two years than his predecessors did in the previous half century, but he could not have done so, admits a senior Erdogan adviser, without the ‘multi-purpose tool’ of Europe with which to crack entrenched resistance to change in the army, judiciary and civil service. But the fact that the journey towards Europe is doing Turkey a power of good is not the same as saying that actually joining the EU will be a good thing. Like a bracing walk to a distant country pub, the benefit is in the journey, not the destination.

Unfortunately, Erdogan sees the whole thing in rather different terms. He is starkly uncompromising: if the EU refuses to admit Turkey, it will be proved to be a racist ‘Christian club’ of hypocrites with ‘double standards’. He may be right in his assessment: it already seems that Turkey’s ultimate accession will depend on referendums in at least one Turko-sceptic (and arguably Islamo-sceptic) country, France, and probably others. The people of Europe may prove to be more instinctively anti-Muslim than their leaders.

Turks, in their pride, have a horror of the kind of ‘privileged relationship’ sort of membership that the German Christian Democrats’ leader Angela Merkel proposes, assuming it to be the synonym of second-class citizenship. But they are wrong: associate membership is closer to Turkey’s fundamental interests, and not just for economic reasons. Outside the Union, Ankara will be free to pursue its regional interests which are no concern of Brussels. Turkey, like Britain, has unique political, historic and economic interests which lie outside the sphere of Brussels’s interference — its troubled relationship with Armenia, its free-trade relations with Iran, its ties to the Turkic republics of central Asia and role as a hub for the export of Caspian oil, its concerns over irredentism spilling over from the Kurds of northern Iraq to its own Kurdish population. Turkey’s strategic richness has for centuries lain in its two-headed position between two worlds — hence the double-headed imperial eagle of Byzantium, subsequently borrowed by Muscovy. Hitching itself to a solely European axis will be to put a hood over one of those heads, and thereby deny the half of Turkey’s identity which looks eastwards to Tartary.

Ultimately, though, the problem is that Turks don’t see their Great March to Europe in purely rational terms. At the heart of their nationalism is the kernel of a fear, sown by Atatürk, that they are somehow imperfectly civilised unless they are accepted as a member of the club of Western nations. That fear of exclusion will drive them to push for membership of the EU, whatever the cost to their own vital interests. Too bad for them — good news for us.

Owen Matthews is Newsweek’s correspondent in Istanbul.