Throwing in the towel in EU-Turkey talks

Should Turkey join the European Union now that the 27-member bloc is having a hard time coping with the aftershocks of the global economic crisis in the eurozone? Does it make any sense to be a member of the bloc that has been struggling to formulate a coherent foreign policy and security strategy amid opposing gravitational forces pulling from each side — from the Euro-Atlantic basin to continental Europe, from the Nordic bloc to the Mediterranean club?

Should we nosedive into the cumbersome and slow-moving EU bureaucracy and lose our flexibility and agility among countless directives? With the anti-EU sentiment growing among Turks, will EU membership no longer be a “strategic choice” for Turkish policy makers? Do pessimistic remarks about the EU recently uttered by top Turkish leaders signal a fundamental policy shift, or are they just for domestic political consumption.

These are all fair questions when it comes to the prospect of Turkish membership in the EU. All questions point to the main underlying theme: Everybody wants to know whether increasingly confident Turkey with its young, vibrant population and robust economy wants to be one of 20 plus something, or if it wants to be a counterbalance to the EU in a trio of major powers in Europe — Turkey, Russia and the EU. The question will be more relevant 10 to 20 years from now, when the Turkish economy will presumably outgrow EU engine Germany and its population will be the largest on the continent.

First of all, I do not see any “hard evidence” suggesting that Turkey has changed its strategic choice when it comes to its desire to join the EU. It is true that there is a sense of frustration and some negative talk here and there, even among senior leadership in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). But we have not noticed, so far, that any of this talk has turned into policy action that will hamper the EU process in a fundamental way.

Secondly, I firmly believe Turkey would very much like to be in the club, where it can make a difference in decisions made in Brussels and Strasbourg, even if it means the country will lose some sovereignty. With some constraints, full membership is expected to strengthen Ankara’s hand in other areas like the Middle East and Africa by providing resources to fuel the engine of Turkish foreign policy. For Turkey, the EU is like a NATO where Turkish diplomats feel they can bargain for deals beneficial not only to Turkish interests, but others as well.

Thirdly, I think Turkey still needs the EU as an anchor to push for major political reforms that will raise democratic standards in the country. With internal dynamics alone, it would have proven very difficult or costly to achieve what Turkey had accomplished in addressing its shortcomings in many areas, including, but not limited to, human rights, civilian supremacy and judicial reform. As the Ergenekon coup trials show, the process of democratization could easily have been thwarted by the generals who used to rule the country behind closed doors. I remember that in one of the indictments, the evidence cited a general admitting that the chances of a successful military coup would be very slim now that Turkey is officially a candidate country.

Fourthly, the EU process has helped Turkish businesses increase their competitiveness as they raised manufacturing and industrial standards to EU levels in order to sell their products. If Turkish products are superior to the ones in the Middle East today, the EU should take partial credit for that. Our relationship with the EU, Turkey’s largest export market, is a valuable one that we can’t do away with. Today, 90 percent of direct investment and 80 percent of technology in Turkey still come from EU countries.

Fifthly, EU membership is no longer an Ankara-dominated issue. Turkish companies scattered around the country pressure the government to pursue this strategic business goal of harmonizing laws to keep up with European companies on an equal footing. Just as a poultry producer in the western city of Bandırma was impacted by health directives on food safety adopted in Brussels, a furniture manufacturer in Central Anatolian Kayseri was influenced by the new EU policies on the timber industry. They all want their government in Ankara to keep abreast of developments taking place in the 27-nation bloc.

In the final analysis, there is also a growing sense of local ownership for the EU membership across the country, thanks to the active lobbying efforts spearheaded by the Secretariat-General for EU Affairs (ABGS), a new reform engine in Turkey headed by government pointman Egemen Bağış, the chief EU negotiator. I was with him last week in the eastern province of Elazığ, watching his sales pitch to local mayors gathered from neighboring provinces Bingöl, Diyarbakır, Malatya and Tunceli.

It was the third regional meeting as part of a project called “The Municipalities are Preparing for the EU.” The first two meetings were held in the southeastern Anatolian province of Gaziantep and the southern province of Hatay. According to a protocol signed between the ABGS and the Turkish Union of Municipalities (TBB) last December, each municipality established special commissions and contact groups to oversee local activities in line with the EU membership process.

“We gathered here officials from municipalities in eastern Anatolian provinces and are preparing them for [EU] membership. Would we be here had we dropped the EU issue from our agenda?” Bağış said. He repeatedly underlined that Turkey will not the one that throws in the towel in membership negotiations. His remarks, as well as the actions on the ground, indicate that the EU is not a choice for Turkey but a destiny that needs to be pursued vigorously, despite the daunting remarks issued in Europe and little or no progress made in talks for some time now.

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