Pitfalls to Europe


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Brussels's latest progress report on Turkey has set Ankara some difficult homework, as the country begins an accession journey that is likely to be lengthy. There are many obstacles on the path to membership, both internally and externally, with nobody expecting the trip to be an easy ride.

Looking down the list of potential trouble spots, many would agree that the largest overseas stumbling block to Turkey's EU ambitions is the troublesome island of Cyprus.

Since agreeing to expand its customs union with the EU to include all the new member states - including the Republic of Cyprus - Ankara has refused to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic.

The Turkish government is determined to avoid any move that could be conceived of as recognition of the Greek Cypriots as the rulers of the whole island, or indeed of being perceived domestically to have made too many concessions on the "national cause" of Turkish Cyprus.

Yet, inking the customs union back in July 2005 must be followed by full implementation with no exception, according to Brussels. Blocking access to ports is clearly in breach of this, never mind undermining one of the key chapters that Turkey will have to close during accession - that of the free movement of goods and services within the EU. The recent Commission paper has thus called for a "normalisation of bilateral relations" with Cyprus in the short term.

One possible way round this impasse would be to decouple aid and trade. By granting the Turkish Cypriots the 259m euros in financial assistance they have been promised by the EU, Ankara might find it easier to open the ports.

But so far there have been no signs of an agreement. Prospects of a solution to the island's division also look dim, given the Greek Cypriot leadership's unwillingness to grant the Turks any concessions. The Greek Cypriot rejection of the UN's Annan Plan for reunification, which was accepted by the vast majority of Turkish Cypriots in April 2004, is a case in point. Now, as a member of the EU, the Republic of Cyprus could well exercise its veto power during the accession talks on a whole range of issues so as to gain leverage over the Turks.

All of this makes the Cyprus issue likely to continue to recur throughout the accession process. For now, Turkey's refusal to open its ports and airports will be re-examined by the Europeans in 2006.

Yet whilst the troublesome island is without doubt the most nettlesome foreign policy issue, analysts have also drawn attention to the fact that Turkey may face some difficulty in normalising relations with other neighbours, as required under the EU Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).

First of all, despite some rapprochement with Greece since the 1999 earthquakes, many old wounds have still not been addressed.

Turkey continues to oppose Athens' demands to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean beyond 6 miles, with any attempt to actual do this still considered a casus belli by Turkey's National Security Council (MGK). Disputes continue too over airspace, with the result that both sides claim constant overflights by the other.

Relations are also still cool over the lot of Turkey's Greek minority and the status of the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul, as well as of the Turkish minority in Greece.

Meanwhile, normalising relations with another neighbour, Armenia, will also take great effort. The land border between the two countries is still closed as a result of an embargo begun by Turkey in support of its Azerbaijani allies during the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh. While there is talk of a major effort to resolve that dispute likely in the months ahead, Turkey's relations with Armenia remain hostage to the resolution of this highly complex dispute.

Allegations of genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 are also a continuous point of contention and sensitivity for both sides. While recent events such as the conference at Istanbul's Bilgi University back in September on this subject seem to promise future rapprochement on this, both sides are under no illusions as to how long it will take to build mutual trust.

Also abroad is another major challenge - the referenda that threaten to be held in Europe over Turkey's accession bid.

Support for Turkish membership in the existing EU is distressingly low. Amongst the Union's pre-enlargement 15 member states, an average 32% were in favour between May and June 2005, according to a Eurobarometer survey. Polls conducted by the European Commission in July provided little comfort to Ankara either, with 52% of Europeans opposed to Turkish membership and a modest 35% in favour. Opposition registered highest at 80% in Austria, 74% in Germany, 72% in Luxembourg and 70% in France and Greece. Only Hungary had a majority in favour of Turkish membership.

In France, President Jacques Chirac - a cautious advocate of the Turkish cause - has promised to hold a referendum on Turkish accession. The move was intended to quell resistance to Turkey's ambitions within the population at large and the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), although many Turks see the president's move as a cheap popularity stunt. Whatever the assessment, France will hold a referendum on Turkey's bid to join the Union at some unspecified date in the years to come, after having changed the French constitution to this end. The Austrians too may emulate the French.

Meanwhile, the appointment of Angela Merkel as chancellor in Germany is hardly the best of news for Ankara, given her opposition to full EU membership for Turkey. However, the incoming chancellor may not be an outspoken spoiler due to her grand coalition with the Social Democrats, who are broadly in favour of Turkish membership, analysts believe.

More concerning are the presidential elections in France in 2007, with the possible victory of Nicolas Sarkozy, who favours the "privileged partnership" option for Turkey, rather than full EU membership.

Governments, nevertheless, come and go. With at least 10 years expected before the decision on whether to admit Turkey to the European club, there may be enough opportunity to make a strong case for Turkish accession.

As the years go on, "Turkey will be a very different place, with continental opposition decreasing," Kemal Kirisci, director of the European Studies Centre at Bogazici University predicts. "Leaders in Europe in this time will try to override and shape public opinion."

At the same time, there may be trends in Europe that work against such a positive shaping of public opinion. Fear of Islam, in particular when exploited by European politicians, can have a highly detrimental effect.

The place of Muslims - and not just Turks - is becoming more controversial, rather than less, as the recent riots in France demonstrated.

At the same time, inside Turkey, similar prejudices could also have an impact on the accession process. The prospect of too many "concessions" being imposed on Turkey has already brought thousands of ultra-nationalists onto the streets, while the view that Turkey is being asked to give up much while being unlikely to get much in return has also resulted in a wider disillusionment with the EU nationwide.

A TNS-PIAR poll published by Sabah newspaper in early October revealed that 60% of Turks say they favour EU membership, contrasting with the 90% registered a year ago.

This decline in support is also of concern for domestic reform. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has used the EU accession process as a means to pacify opposition to its reform agenda, particularly given continuing suspicions amongst some secularist, military and media circles that the ruling party still has an alternative Islamist agenda.

In addition to these potential problem areas, there are also concerns over the challenge Turkey will face in meeting the requirements of EU legislation.

Turkey has something of a long haul ahead here, with 35 chapters of homework to finish to the whole EU's satisfaction before Europe considers opening its doors.

Observers have flagged agricultural and environmental reform as being particularly tricky.

On the first of these, reforming Turkey's agricultural sector will be a mammoth task. From a much longer list the government will have to restructure and modernise the agricultural sector, which means diversification in agricultural products, cutting back on state pricing supports and opening the market to foreign agricultural imports.

None of this will occur quickly, with the EU's recent progress report pointing to limited progress in aligning the sector with Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) mechanisms.

The challenge of course is magnified by the fact that as much as 33% of Turkey's labour force is engaged in agricultural activities, according to government statistics from 2003. Some comfort may be drawn from the cases of Poland and Romania - both heavily dependent on agricultural activities and the former already a member of the EU - but parallels are limited.

"The difference is Turkey's reliance on semi-subsistence farming, with farmers generally consuming what they produce and selling only a small portion. This contrasts with Poland, for example, where there were strong co-operatives under the former Soviet Union," says Fatma Can, head of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries at the Secretariat General for EU Affairs. "The main issue is the small scale of farming and scattered plots of land owned by Turkish farmers." These features will make reform all the more painful.

Then there is the environmental chapter, which will take considerable work and expenditure. In order to catch up with EU standards Turkey will have to spend some 35bn euros ($41.2bn) on environmental projects alone, according to Environment Minister Osman Pepe.

The hope is that the EU will foot 15% of the total bill through grants, though this would still leave Turkey and international institutions with 30bn euros still to be covered. No easy task for a government whose debt ratio to GDP is still over 70%.

Management of wastewater and industrial emissions will be a particular headache, with the country dumping as much as 65% of wastewater into the sea, according to the Ministry of the Environment. Little surprise that the government intends to ask Brussels for transitional periods. This will open the way for Turkey to join the Union before absolute conformity with the EU's environmental demands are in place.

Ankara will also have to consider a multiplicity of other obligations ranging from the reform of the judiciary, streamlining of administrative procedures, reform of the public sector, separation of civilian-military relations, narrowing the urban/rural divide, and curbing corruption. Then there are human rights and minority rights, the former of which has drawn particular attention recently with the upcoming trail of famous novelist Orhan Pamuk for commenting on the Armenian and Kurdish issues and the sentencing of Turkish Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink.

The EU for its part has made it more than clear that the timing with which chapters can be closed will be purely result-based, implying that the negotiation process could drag on beyond predicted timeframes.

Still, delays alone should not discourage Ankara's push towards Europe. The government has time again emphasised that it views reform as an end unto itself. Its commitment to economic change has been more than apparent, with Turkey being granted liberal market economy status by the EU.

Nevertheless, many analysts question the government's commitment to liberal political and social reform, given its historical conservatism.

"The AKP had hoped to acquire support from the EU in introducing conservative measures - such as allowing headscarves in university - but in the guise of political liberalism. They have been seriously disappointed here," comments one European diplomat in Ankara. This could complicate matters in the future.

Whatever the obstacles however, no one should lose sight of the greater benefits associated with Turkish accession, even if sceptics tend to be blinkered by their own prejudices.

Turkish membership of the EU would not only diffuse notions - no matter how spurious - of a "clash of civilisations" between East and West, but could also serve as a model for democracy in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, Europe's own Muslims would be reassured that the societies in which they live embrace diversity fully.

European security forces are unlikely to complain either. Turkish accession could potentially arm Europe with a greater leverage over states in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia thanks to Turkey's geographical position. It might also ensure long-lasting stability in the country itself.

In addition, Turkey offers a young growing population that could support Europe's aging one, although at the same time, fears of Turkish workers flooding into Western Europe are misplaced given the derogations that are likely to be imposed on the movement of Turkish labour in Europe.

Now with the economy in full swing, there is no knowing the economic heights that Turkey may reach in the decades to come. Still, communicating the benefits of Turkish accession to Europeans and Turks alike will take plenty of effort. But politicians know that they have time, with Ankara facing a long upward trudge before Turkey can fully take its place amongst Europe's ring of stars.

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