Turkey’s EU bid fades with little drama

By Paul Taylor
October 15, 2009

turkarmeniaTurkey’s bid to join the European Union is fading away with surprisingly little drama because investors no longer see the prospect of accession as an essential policy anchor.

But EU leaders should keep Ankara’s entry negotiations alive on the back burner rather than trying to engage Ankara on alternatives to membership, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy would like to do.

In a version of the old Soviet workers’ joke, “they pretend to pay us and we pretend to work,” the buzz on Turkey in the European Commission’s enlargement department is, “they pretend
they’re reforming and we pretend we want them”.

The EU’s biggest candidate began accession talks on the same day as Croatia in 2005. At that time, optimists on both sides reckoned the negotiations might be concluded within a decade.
But while Zagreb was told by Brussels on Wednesday that it can expect to wrap up its entry talks next year, Ankara has not even advanced one-quarter of the way. The Turks got another
C-minus “must try harder” annual progress report.

The unresolved Cyprus conflict has shackled their progress, prompting the EU to freeze eight of the 36 policy chapters in the negotiations. The election of Sarkozy, who is openly hostile to Turkish membership, forced the EU to take another five policy areas off the table.

The changed political mood in France and Germany, the EU’s two central powers, has dimmed prospects of the overwhelmingly Muslim nation of 71 million ever joining the 27-nation bloc. Any further accession treaty after Croatia’s will be subject to a referendum in France, where public opinion is strongly against Turkish accession, unless a three-fifths majority of both houses of parliament improbably decides otherwise.

Without the magnet of membership, the EU’s ability to spur political and economic reform in Turkey is ever weaker. Some in Brussels fault Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan for failing to lead
the reform drive, but it’s a hard sell if most Turks rightly surmise that they have no prospect of EU entry.

Five years ago, Turkey’s accession process was seen, along with its International Monetary Fund standby loan programme, as a guarantee of monetary, fiscal and economic stability, drawing huge inflows of foreign direct investment and portfolio funds.

Yet the absence of an IMF programme and virtual deadlock in the EU talks no longer spook the markets. Financial stability and the rule of law, at least for foreign investors, have become
more self-sustaining. Turkey is set to exit the global financial crisis in better shape than most other emerging markets. The fact that it is still talking to the European Commission about adopting EU norms is reassuring for investors.

The government is supporting negotiations for a solution on Cyprus, even though it still refuses to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. It has made a historic opening to Armenia
(picture shows the Armenian and Turkish presidents with UEFA president Michel Platini at a soccer match) and now espouses a political and economic solution, rather than a purely military one, for the Kurdish southeast of the country. It has also gradually exerted more civilian control over the military, despite frequent tensions.

Turkey has also built stronger ties with other neighbours — Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria — while maintaining good relations with Israel and the United States.

The Turks may one day decide on their own that they don’t need EU membership. The accession negotiations have helped them modernise their economy and governance, But they have plenty of other strategic options.

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