Turkey and the EU: growing further apart

Finbarr Bermingham reports on how two former bedfellows are moving in different directions

It's often said that Turkey straddles two continents, acting as a bridge between west and east. And for politicians on the European side, the Turkish question has provided decades of head scratching. In the early to mid 2000s, when Turkey's accession to the EU was high on the agenda, it was easy to argue that Turkey needed Europe more than Europe needed it. The EU was booming and expanding, with Turkey (GDP: £468.05 billion) left looking on from the sidelines as the likes of Estonia (GDP: £12.64 billion) and Cyprus (GDP: £14.85 billion) were shepherded in through the busy Brussels turnstiles.

Less than a decade later, that argument has, arguably, been turned on its head. The European Union has spent the past five years stumbling from crisis to crisis. The future of the euro is in serious doubt, with the overprescription of austerity suffocating any hope there was of the eurozone growing its way back to economic health. Swathes of the EU are gripped in what now seems to be perpetual recession and plagued by high unemployment: 22.6 per cent of EU citizens under 25 are out of work, while in Spain the figure has peaked at a monstrous 52.1 per cent.

To compound matters, the proportion of elderly people in the EU's population is growing at a worrying rate. By 2060, 29.5 per cent of the EU's population will be over 65 years old and the number of dependents in the population is projected to more than double from the equivalent of 25.9 per cent of the labour force in 2010, to 52.6 per cent in 2060.

Policymakers in Brussels, then, would be forgiven for casting envious glances toward the Bosporus, at a nation that's now being described as "a regional superpower". Last year, the Turkish economy grew by a whopping 8.8 per cent, helped along by booming construction and maturing financial sectors. Turkey's median age is just 28.8, compared with 39.9 in Britain and 44.2 in Germany, and its workforce is increasingly well-educated. It's reaping the benefits of years of steady growth, helped along partly by a period of stable governance in recent years. A burgeoning Turkey would, undoubtedly, inject new life into the floundering European economy.

Back on the table?

But when (admittedly preliminary) discussions on Turkey entering the EU reopened earlier this year, they raised a few eyebrows. Most of the obstacles that impeded negotiations last decade remain firmly in place. For one, Turkey still doesn't recognise Cypriot sovereignty. Nor is it enamoured with Cyprus' six month EU presidency this year. It demands that the Turkish north side of the island be declared an EU-free trade zone and has closed its ports to ships bearing the Cypriot flag in an attempt to force its claim.

Turkey's human rights record, another of the EU's bugbears, is still questionable, at best. According to Human Rights Watch, its "international credibility should be in doubt as long as it fails to address its human rights record, especially in regard to the large Kurdish minority". Dr. Markus Ketola, an expert on Turkish civil society in relation to EU expansion at LSE, says the Kurdish situation is improving, but has a long way to go. The language is more prominent and Kurds - who account for about 30 per cent of the population - can be found at all levels of society. In order to get ahead, however, they often have to leave their ethnicity at the door.

The EU still pumps development aid to the tune of €600 million (about £481 million) into Turkey every year, which is supposed to go towards readying the country for future entry into the union. Many Turks, however, have grown disillusioned with attempts to "westernise" their nation. "Some perceive it as an external agenda," explains Dr. Ketola. "Like they're being told what to do, or being asked to do the EU's dirty work. Others like the idea of being able to do more [in terms of reform] but can't because they'd simply get labelled 'agents of the west'. So the EU has become a brand like Marmite: people either love it or hate it."

Tipping the scales

Political shifts in both Europe and Turkey have led to further fissures appearing in the relationship. In France, in efforts to win the far right vote, Nicolas Sarkozy outlawed face-covering for religious reasons. Earlier this year, the French also passed a law which made it illegal to deny the Armenian genocide, in which up to 1.5 million Armenians were murdered at the hands of the Young Turk government during and after the first world war.

Eurosceptic and eastward-gazing Turks have had their noses put out of joint in both cases and some view the west's attempts to reform the country as a facade; the reality being that the EU doesn't want to admit a Muslim nation, particularly because if and when Turkey was ready to join the EU, it would immediately become its most powerful member (votes are allocated by population. Currently, Turkey would be second in command behind Germany, but population trends suggest it will be by far the largest country in Europe by population within a generation).

While the country is constitutionally secular, 99.8 per cent of the population is registered as Muslim. The centre-right Islamist AKP government has overseen a shift in ideology and in the balance of geographical power since it swept to power in 2007. A new, Islamic wealth has been stirring in the east of Turkey, with rich textile factory owners helping stimulate vibrant growth beyond the Dardanelles. The westward gazing elite in Istanbul now find that their lobby holds less sway than it did ten years ago.

Islam is more visible in the workplace now too - Dr. Ketola noticed almost uniform participation in Friday prayer in government buildings on a recent research trip to Turkey. When growing up there, he noticed no such thing. He warns of the dangers of moving "too far in that direction", but feels it is unlikely that Turkey will lose its official secular status any time soon. The government is popular mainly because of the stability it's restored to the markets. Once it starts impinging on people's freedoms, the tables may turn with swiftness.

Turkey's foreign policy has evolved over the past ten years, too. Rather than strengthening ties with Europe, it's been turning its eyes to the Middle East and has been a key diplomatic player in the Arab Spring, the Syrian uprising and the west's standoff with Iran. A Middle Eastern equivalent of the European Union is probably a bridge too far, but Turkey's importance in the region has seen it become a key member of NATO, an important ally of the USA and a more visible player on the world's economic stage (in June, for instance, it pledged $5 billion (about £3.2 billion) to the IMF).

So while bureaucrats in Europe continue to appease and keep discussions afloat, it would seem that Turkey's focus and interests lie elsewhere. Trade barriers with the EU are already minimal and Turkish students enjoy relatively unrestricted visa status. Neither party seems willing to embrace the kind of changes Turkish accession would require, so even for longterm advocates like Dr. Ketola, Turkey joining the EU is a more distant dream than ever.