The European Union has begun a new round of talks with Turkey, discussing the country’s application for EU membership.
Turkey first applied to the EU 26 years ago. As can be expected, the country’s social, political and economic landscape is today very different, and many Turks are now doubtful about the benefits about aligning themselves to a Europe in major financial difficulties. However, all the same a government spokesperson has announced the talks to be a “real turning point” for relations.
Although negotiations were suspended for three and a half years over the Cyprus issue and a recent EU report slammed the Turkish police for their heavy-handed tactics during the Taksim Square protests in June, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fuele, emphasised that these events only highlighted the need for Turkey to engage further with Brussels.
Over the years negotiations have broken down over a range of issues, including concern over democracy, religious minority treatment and ongoing tensions with Cyprus. Some EU politicians are concerned that a large, mainly Muslim country could change the landscape of the EU. However, others are excited by the possibilities that Turkey’s young population could present for an ageing Europe.
Recent reforms introduced in Turkey have addressed some of the EU concerns, as Turkey begins to tackle its mistreatment of minorities and take steps to re-energise its political system.
EU officials have also acknowledged the huge contribution that Turkey has made, both economically and politically, to Europe’s growth. One of the founding members of the United Nations, Turkey has been instrumental in Europe’s economy. Since the fall of the Ottoman regime, succeeding governments have worked to align the country with Western governments, forging positive political and trade agreements.
Tuesday’s talks in Brussels focussed on Chapter 22 of the EU standards policy document, which covers job creation, competitiveness, innovation, economic growth, improved quality of life and sustainable development.
The Cyprus conundrum
One of the major stumbling blocks remains Turkey’s relationship with Greece and the fact the government refuses to recognise the government of the Republic of Cyprus. In 1974 disputes between ancestral Turks living in Cyprus and Greek Cypriots led to a revolt which - literally - divided the country’s population in two. The matter is still far from resolution, although the country is peaceful. In 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was formed by Turkish Cypriots. However, this nation is not recognised as an independent state by any country other than Turkey. Until this conflict is resolved it is unlikely that Turkey’s entry to the European Union will ever take place.
Does Turkey really need EU membership?
With the current financial state of most of the European Union countries compared to Turkey’s powerhouse economy, a number of critics believe that The EU needs Turkey far more than the other way around. Aides to Erdogan have officially declared that while Europe is in a downward spiral, Turkey is on the rise as a major economic power.
Technically, they’re not wrong. Let’s look at the facts: nine of the 17 eurozone countries are still in recession, and those nine include Europe’s largest and most important countries including Spain, France, Italy and Finland. In fact, only Germany is really thriving.
On the other hand, Turkey’s economy has gone from strength to strength to become one of the world’s strongest emerging economies. The World Bank declared Turkey’s “rapid growth and development” over the past ten years as “one of the success stories of the global economy”, and pointed out that countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are looking to the country as an example of how to proceed. The Turkish real estate market is thriving, as is its tourist industry, with higher numbers than ever before booking Turkey villa holidays and coastal excursions.
With a gross domestic product of $735 billion, Turkey has become the 18th largest economy in the world. This is remarkable as unlike other financial powers Turkey lacks natural resources like oil and gas, and also has a large energy consumption. Despite this, the country’s per capita income has tripled in less than ten years, while global and European growth was severely stunted by the global economic crisis.
What’s more, Turkey is aiming to become one of the world’s ten largest economies by 2023, shooting for a GDP of $2 trillion, a foreign trade volume greater than $1 trillion, and for per capita income to more than double from the current $10,000 to $25,000. Turkey is determined to develop its largest city Istanbul as an international finance leader and become one of the leading manufacturing and service providers in the northern hemisphere.
Those for Turkey’s membership argue that joining the EU marketplace will boost trade for Turkey. While this is true, it’s clear Turkey is already forging trade links and courting foreign investment with such success that other countries are looking towards this Asian-European country for inspiration on how to thrive in a recession. Turkey’s sales abroad reached a record $135 billion USD in 2011 - while the EU’s shrunk alarmingly.
This is not a country desperate for the help of a faltering institution like the EU, and Turks know it. A poll last year showed that support within Turkey for joining the EU had dropped from 34% to 17% over the course of a year. With support for EU membership at an all-time low and Turkey’s economy at an all time high, Turks are asking: “What can joining the European Union do for us that we can’t do for ourselves?”
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