In early October, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made headlines for claiming that Turkey “no longer needed” European Union membership. His remarks follow German chancellor Angela Merkel’s in September, when she stated that she would seek to end Turkey’s EU membership talks.
Erdogan appears to be shrugging off the slight. "The only way for the European Union to implement new initiatives lies through Turkey's full membership,” he said. “[Turkey] is ready to support such initiatives and contribute to Europe's future. However, if the European Union chooses another way, it is not a problem. Turkey will not lose anything and will continue following its own path."
While relations with Europe have clearly cooled, it's one of the clear facts about Turkey that the gateway country and Europe need to find a new way to maintain a partnership. Turkey is a key geopolitical ally for Europe, as well as a significant trade partner and energy hub, which is why maintaining a relationship of some kind is critical for the future of both sides.
Turkey’s historic bid for EU accession
Turkey’s bid for European membership dates back to 1999, but its history with the EU goes back much further, to 1963 when the Ankara Treaty was signed to gain Association with the European Economic Community. In 2005, accession negotiations finally began, and Turkish enthusiasm for joining Europe had never been higher.
And how about Turkish sentiment? However, polls conducted over the past few years have suggested Turks aren’t all that fussed about joining the EU. It was probably no coincidence that this cooling sentiment coincided with the Erdogan administration’s successful efforts to diversify trade and investment with other partners: the Middle East, Russia, and Africa, moving away from its reliance on Europe. Turks clearly share Erdogan’s faith that Turkey can stand on its own.
This year, Turkey’s run into a few stumbling blocks in its relationship with the EU. Accusations of human rights violations and Erodgan’s increased powers have seen talks stall, and in April the European Parliament recommended the suspension of EU talks. There’s little chance this will change anytime soon. However, Turkey’s importance to its European neighbours is undeniable.
A geopolitical ally
Lying at the crossroads between the Middle East, Europe and Asia, Turkey’s geographical position highlights its necessity to a Europe wrestling with regional difficulties in the Middle East.
Turkey has strong ties with the Arab world and history shows us that if the EU wishes to further develop Middle East foreign policy, it won’t be able to do so without Turkey. Its regional position and status as a 70-year Nato ally has seen Turkey responsible for upholding regional peace and stability after the second world war.
In the last few years, Turkey’s proximity to neighbouring Syria means it has been instrumental in the latest Middle Eastern conflict, as well as helping to stem the tide of refugee migrants to Europe. Three million Syrian refugees now live in Turkey - and are being assimilated with little internal controversy.
Turkey’s geographical position also gives it another key advantage: just few hours’ flight from Istanbul takes you within reach of 1.4 billion people, which gives a little indication of the potential scope for Turkish trade. Currently, the EU accounts for around 50 percent of all Turkey’s trade, while Turkey is the EU’s fourth-largest trading partner. Between 2003 and 2107, foreign direct investment from the EU accounted for 73 percent of Turkey’s FDI flows, totalling almost US$100bn. It’s worth noting that the weakening of the accession bid has had little impact on FDI levels - a testament to Turkey’s independent economic growth.
Turkey’s economy took a hit after last year’s attempted coup, but it’s well on its way to recovery. The OECD forecast shows a growth rate of 3.5 percent for the next two years - although Turkey’s own figures are higher. For the last ten years Turkey has been considered an upper-middle-income country, and the government has hopes that it will become even more prosperous, crossing into the high-income threshold within the next three years. This seismic living shift will trigger an uptick in trade from Europe as Turks begin to demand goods and services conducive to a middle and upper-class lifestyle.
Turkey has become a key player in supplying Europe’s energy requirements. Turkey is increasingly becoming an crucial transit hub for oil and natural gas supplies, with the country providing access to Europe from Asia and the Middle East.
Oil: Five percent of global oil production flows through Turkey from its origins in Russia and the Middle East and Kazhakstan.
Natural gas: Europe is the world’s second-largest market for natural gas, and Turkey’s position between Europe and the vast reserves of the Caspian Basin and the Middle East mean Turkey also has a strategic role in natural gas transit. The Turk Stream pipeline, which will carry Russian gas to Europe via Turkey, will soon be completed.
Turkey’s role in shaping the identity, security and foreign policy of a continent secures its importance with its European neighbours, making it a significant asset. While EU accession might be off the cards for now, one thing is certain: Europe needs Turkey more than ever, making an ongoing relationship is unavoidable.
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