Turkey’s Tentative EU Springtime
Turkey’s Tentative EU Springtime
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

Turkey’s Tentative EU Springtime

The translucent white marble stairs and cream gilt and stucco ceilings of the ceremonial hall of Ankara’s new presidential palace rarely echo to spontaneous applause, but the words “Turkey will always be part of my heart” did the trick. The declaration came from a source to which the Turkish audience is no longer accustomed: a speech by a pro-Turkish European politician.

They were the words of Dutch Senator René van der Linden’s gracious acceptance of Turkey’s highest honor, the Order of the Republic Medal. It was just one green shoot in a tentative new springtime in relations between Turkey and the European Union. France is allowing EU documents to refer once again to an eventual EU “accession” for Turkey, and will allow one of five chapters it has blocked in the EU–Turkey negotiation process to open, the first in two and a half years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan invited EU ambassadors to dinner and persuaded them that he really does take the relationship seriously, while playing down a recent comment that he thought the Russia- and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a “better, much stronger” club.

Overall, the mood in Ankara with regards to the EU is somber. There is a deep frustration with EU member states, especially with France and Germany, which prefer taking small, tentative steps, rather than opening up the negotiations process. Turkish diplomats feel that Paris and Berlin are making a historic mistake by not treating Ankara as a strategic partner in a turbulent neighborhood, and instead letting a xenophobic and conservative domestic audience dominate the discourse on Turkey’s eventual EU membership.

Almost a decade after the Republic of Cyprus joined the European club, there is still amazed incomprehension at EU member states’ willingness to sacrifice greater cooperation with Turkey in solidarity with the Republic of Cyprus, even though Turkish Cypriots accepted the EU-backed UN plan to reunite the island in 2004, while Greek Cypriots rejected it.

Turkey is also frustrated that Europe does not give it greater credit for its remarkable economic progress. A quadrupling of national income and exports over the past decade has filled Turkey’s cities with well-finished apartment blocks, glittering shopping malls and fancy restaurants, with new cars thickly parked outside. Once-runaway inflation has been brought under control. Last year, credit rating agency Fitch gave Turkish Treasury issues investment-grade status, and this year Turkish banks will issue the first Eurobonds in lira. In terms of foreign direct investment, Turkey attracted just USD 10 billion in the two decades to 2006, but has taken in USD 100 billion in the six years since then.

Prime Minister Erdogan and his ruling party insist that this success is due to the stability ushered in by their effective, strong government. Underlining the point, pro-government media outlets portray Europe as a weak, divided continent wobbling on the verge of bankruptcy. Turkish leaders say that Europe needs Turkey’s 75 million people more than Turkey needs Europe so often that many Turks now actually believe it.

Artificial reform

But how much has Turkey really changed, and is it really on course to achieve its ambition of becoming one of the world’s ten largest economies? Certainly, the old gecekondu, shanty neighborhoods that used to encrust the hills along the Ankara airport highway, have been bulldozed and concreted over with what will soon be a gleaming new city. But for the other half of the journey, the new grandeur pasted onto buildings along the highway is literally skin-deep, a Potemkin illusion of red brick facades designed to please the eyes of foreign dignitaries and investors speeding into town.

Indeed it is easy to forget that the great Turkish boom was from an artificially low base and depended significantly on a European underpinning. Three quarters of foreign investment still comes from EU member states, with which Turkey still does half of its trade. Turkey’s opportunities in the Middle East have crashed after the past two years of violence in the region. Beyond its borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria, the situation now offers more risk than opportunity.

Most damaging of all for Turkey’s long-term prospects of a solo catch-up with Europe, however, is a failure to keep up its reform agenda. Ankara’s first wave of laws created with EU membership in mind did just enough between 1999 and 2004 to “sufficiently” meet the EU’s Copenhagen criteria for democratic politics and market economics. But the second wave never materialized, leaving the country’s judicial, education and taxation system caught in the old mire of inefficient top-down bureaucracy.

Blame for the stalled reforms can be shared between European Turkoskeptic politicians, Euroskeptic Turkish leaders, and quarrels over the divided island of Cyprus. But above all it is a Turkish political decision not to ratify the EU customs union with Cyprus and open its airports and seaports to Cypriot traffic that is directly or indirectly blocking half of its EU negotiating chapters. And Turkey’s substitution of homegrown ‘Ankara criteria’ for the Copenhagen ones has proved mostly rhetorical.

A poor record

Turkey’s leaders need to take another look at how much they need an EU process with real benchmarks. The Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2011 placed Turkey 88th as a “hybrid regime,” a category below “flawed democracy,” the same place it was in 2007. In 2011, Turkey came only 92nd in the UN’s Human Development Index, a rank unchanged since 2006. Recognition of intellectual achievements is meager, perhaps not surprising given that children still only spend an average of six and a half years in school. “Low proficiency” in English puts Turkey 32nd of 54 countries ranked by the 2012 EF English Proficiency Index.

The legal system is crying out for change. Outdated terrorism legislation meant that one third of all the world’s terrorism arrests made between 2001 and 2011 were in Turkey, including several thousand non-violent Kurdish activists placed in preventive detention. Turkey’s judiciary ranks at best 35th (for absence of corruption), and at worst 76th (for protecting fundamental rights), according to the World Justice Project’s 2012 Rule of Law Index. The Council of Europe reported in 2009 that Turkey’s prison population has doubled since 2006, with more than half being remand prisoners, resulting in jails that are overcrowded, tense, unhygienic and lacking out-of-cell activities.

Even economically, in 2013 Bloomberg only ranked Turkey as the seventh most attractive emerging market. Turkey’s vibrant commercial hub, Istanbul, took a laggard’s 74th place in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2012 ranking of global cities’ competitiveness. Far from rivaling the EU, average per capita income in Turkey is still half the EU average. Turkey’s much-vaunted goal to become the world’s tenth-largest economy by 2023 looks ambitious, given that Turkey’s 18th place in World Bank rankings in 2011 is not far from its 21st in 2003 and 22nd in 1993.

Istanbul, it is true, is now second favorite after Tokyo to host the 2020 Olympics—but Turkey’s sports record is hardly stellar, coming 50th out of 55 countries in the 2012 Olympics gold medal rankings. On the bright side, its regionally popular soap operas, along with Turkish Airlines being named Europe’s best airline by the World Airlines Awards in 2012, did push the country to 20th place in Monocle magazine’s annual look at global soft power. However, another survey did not find much to smile about: in 2011, Gallup found that Turkey was the seventh most unhappy country of 148 surveyed, in terms of people reporting recent anger, stress, worry, sadness or physical pain.

In a number of indexes, the stalling of Turkey’s EU reform process visibly coincides with a downward trend. Turkey is already responsible for the greatest number of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights; Russia now exceeds it in number of pending cases, but new cases referred from Turkey have doubled since 2008. Turkey was placed 154th in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, compared to around 100th in the mid-2000s. The World Economic Forum’s 2012 Global Gender Gap Report ranks Turkey as the 124th-best country for discrimination against women, down from 105th in 2006.

Mingling with guests at a reception for the Dutch senator at the presidential palace, Turkey’s EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis, said it was too early to announce a high summer for Turkey in Europe. “France gave us just one chapter to negotiate! That will hardly make my year,” he said. Indeed, European diplomats already privately wonder if Turkey still “sufficiently” meets those Copenhagen criteria for political and economic freedoms. If Prime Minister Erdogan rams through constitutional changes for a presidential system with no checks and balances so that he can win absolute power in a 2014 election, Turkey may slip down that ladder, too.

Turkey’s road to European inclusion and parity remains a long one. It will take some real outreach from Europe, too, to persuade Turks that they are not forced to find their way alone. Arriving late from work for dinner, a diplomat from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry—a principal bastion of pro-European sentiment in Ankara—said it was not uncommon these days for officials to work through the night juggling the many crises that surround the country. She felt that a little new hope from the Europeans is better than nothing, but that they are still keeping Turkey at arm’s length. “We have a saying for this,” she said. “They made me lose my donkey, and now all they’re doing is helping me find it again.”

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