GIM 2008 -
POSTED ON: 01 Jun 2010
RESEARCHERS: Kristen Cole, Kaha Khizanishvili, Travis Morgan, and Manpreet Randhawa
Turkey, physically part of both Europe and Asia, has also straddled Western and Eastern cultures, values, and interests for centuries; and it has been in talks for several years with the European Union (EU) regarding accession to the region. But to join the EU, Turkey must fulfill requirements including those related to human rights, economic reforms, and the organization of its military. Given Turkey’s status as a secularized Muslim country, along with its enviable geographic position including transit routes among several continents, its accession to the EU has broad, multi-dimensional international implications.
Turkey’s History, Politics, and Human Rights
After World War I, Mustafa Kemal (known as Atatürk), led the infant Republic of Turkey toward modernization. This influenced the country’s perception of itself as largely European—Istanbul bills itself as the “Paris of the East”—though only 3 percent of the nation lies in that continent. The election of the pro-EU AKP party in 2002 made EU membership an anchor for political, social, and economic reforms in Turkey, along with an effort to improve relations with EU countries. Among the factors that converged in the 1990s to increase EU member support for Turkey’s entrance into the EU were the election of Turkey-friendly Social Democrats in Germany; Greece’s shift, especially following the 1999 earthquakes there and in Turkey, toward a pro-Turkey position, and the Clinton administration’s support of Turkey.
Yet Turkey’s human rights record falls below European standards, which continues to jeopardize its chance for EU status. Among the several areas of human-rights-related concerns are the denial of rights to the Kurds (complicated by ongoing armed conflict between Turkey and the radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK), Turkey’s denial of the alleged post-WWI Armenian genocide, and potential human rights violations including restrictions on freedom of speech, an increasingly religious state that denies religious freedom, and poor attitudes toward women (including weak societal attitudes toward practices such as “honor killings”).
Turkey has taken steps to address many of these concerns—especially regarding minority and women’s rights—including greater cultural/linguistic rights for the country’s Kurdish, Arabic, and Bosnian communities and the announcement in 2008 of a significant aid package for the Kurds. But many, including Human Rights Watch, suggest that much further work is necessary.
The Influence of Turkey’s Military
Historically Turkey’s military has been highly active in the country’s politics, toppling four governments since Atatürk decisively defeated the British at Gallipoli in 1915. Unlike many military actions, these moves were bids to defend democratic principles and the Turkish armed forces’ broad involvement in military affairs has been embraced overall by the country’s general public. In 2006 the army was polled as the “most trusted institution in Turkey.”
Though Turkey became a valuable ally for the West by joining NATO after WWII and even applied to the European Economic Community in 1963, its economic and political instability kept it from being considered desirable by Europe until the late 1990s. The Turkish military’s “post-modern” coup in 1997—the exertion of peaceful pressure on the Islamist government to relinquish control—and its 1998 capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan made the EU more open to Turkey’s accession. The EU invited Turkey to start related negotiations in 1999, stipulating several military-related requirements, including civilian oversight of the military budget and removing military members from higher education and media boards. To the surprise of many, the military has been highly compliant regarding these requirements, and even though Turkish sources noted that “the Armed Forces in Turkey continue to exercise influence through informal channels,” it is viewed as unlikely that the military would hinder accession efforts.
Accession and Economics
Even Turkish officials acknowledge that the EU’s past concerns about Turkey’s economy were valid, with issues ranging from high inflation to potential migration. From the late 1970s to the early 2000s, Turkey’s inflation rate ranged from 25 percent to over 100 percent annually—likely due to high government deficits and major infrastructure and military expenses. This contributed to a high cost of capital that effectively prohibited long-term lending and foreign direct investment. Unofficial unemployment estimates were around 15 percent in the mid-1990s and double that for younger adults in urban areas. GDP averaged only 1.7 percent growth from 1990 to 2001. Not surprisingly, given this economic picture, many Turkish workers emigrated to Western Europe, especially Germany, from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Based in part on the AKP party’s fiscal measures (e.g., central bank independence), Turkey’s annual inflation since 2004 has remained between 9 percent and 11 percent. In early 2008, the government reported its first budget surplus in twenty years. This has helped Turkey participate more actively in the global economy, with imports and exports rising steadily in this decade, along with elevated foreign direct investment (from $1.1 billion in 2002 to $21.9 billion in 2007). Unemployment has remained relatively constant during this period, at about 9.5 percent, but AKP reforms have improved per capita income.
Under current rules, EU members contribute an equal percentage of their GDPs, typically between 1 percent and 1.2 percent, toward the EU budget. By this standard, in 2004 Turkey would have contributed only 2 percent of the total EU budget, while comprising over 14 percent of its population; this has been used as an argument against Turkey’s accession. Additionally, at current population growth rates, Turkey would have the largest number of EU council votes within twenty years. However, if Turkey joins the EU and is allowed free movement of labor, cross-border financial flows are estimated to be positive for the EU as a whole, with different effects on different countries: Germany, Australia, and Italy may gain the most, while Spain, Portugal, and Denmark have more to lose.
Overall, while economic concerns about Turkey’s accession are certainly valid, the AKP has worked hard to align Turkish economic policy with EU regulations, and Turkey’s geographic advantages, including as a throughway to China, make it a potential economic asset to the EU.
Turkey’s Religion and Culture
Turkey has always vacillated between European and Asian identities. For over one thousand years it was known as the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. But after the Ottoman Empire’s breakup, Turkey’s territory diminished to the point that only 3 percent fell within continental Europe.
Today, religious and cultural issues continue to challenge Turkey’s relationship with Europe, largely because while 99 percent of Turkey is Muslim, most of Europe is Christian. Both sides have expressed concern about seeing their cultural identities diminish as a result of accession, and some Europeans worry that it would give rise to additional tensions in countries already characterized by anti-immigrant/Muslim sentiments. Compounding the issue, the AKP has been accused of promoting religion (e.g., allowing religious headscarves in state-controlled areas). But many have lauded Turkey for its combination of Islam and democracy. Further, Turkey has asserted that EU membership may reduce the possibility of an Islamic fundamentalist revival in Turkey, as has occurred in nations such as Egypt and Iran.
Turkey shares borders with Iraq and Iran, and is connected, via Georgia, with energy-rich states of the former Soviet Union, making it one of the best transit routes for energy for the West. For example, Turkey brokered two energy deals with Iran in 2007, and has also improved relationships and pipelines with Azerbaijan and other Caspian states, Russia, and Iraq. These developments could help Turkey serve as an energy conduit for the EU, which currently relies heavily on Russian resources.
International Reaction to Accession
The United States has been a longtime supporter of Turkey’s accession into the EU, but European countries are quick to point out that the United States will bear no related negative repercussions (e.g., increased immigration). Recently, however, Turkey and the United States have disagreed over foreign policy issues including those related to Iraq, Israel, and Cyprus. For example, in 2003, the Turkish parliament refused to authorize U.S. troop mobilization into Iraq from Turkish territory. Similarly, although the United States recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization, it has been reluctant to intervene on recent PKK attacks on Turkey because the Kurds were strong allies against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Yet Turkey’s opposition to the war in Iraq has strengthened its ties to some EU nations.
In this context, some argue that Turkey’s accession will mitigate increasing polarization between the East and West, creating “a closeness between Islamic states and Atlantic states.” For this and other reasons, much of the world, from Australia to the more proximal Northern Africa and Central Asia, are watching Turkey’s progress toward EU membership with great interest.
Europe has remained noncommittal regarding a finalized accession date for Turkey, even though the country has exhibited rapid and semi-comprehensive compliance with many EU-requested reforms. By 2008, talks seem to have stalled based on “softer” factors such as cultural differences and concerns over open-labor flow. If the EU remains recalcitrant over moving the EU process forward, Turkey is likely to lose interest in actual EU membership, but will still have reaped the benefits of instituting many of the required EU reforms. In fact, should trends continue in a similar direction for the country, it appears that the closer Turkey comes to meeting acceptable EU criteria, the less it will actually need to be a part of the EU itself. It is possible the potential EU accession may have provided an important anchor for Turkey to institute needed reforms as an end in and of itself. Even further, as Turkey increases its economic growth and leverages its energy positioning, it may be Europe who pushes harder for a closer relationship with Turkey in the future, especially as Asian markets continue to grow.