Turkey’s European Affair

With aims for more regional influence, EU accession is on the back burner

Top Stories | Philippe Schennach | December 2012 / January 2013

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan (left) established a new relationship when he spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (Photo: Jochen Zick/APA)

"No other country has been kept waiting, knocking on the door of the EU, for such a long time," complained Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a joint press conference in Berlin on 31 October. The subsequent meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel revealed just how much the relationship between Turkey and the EU has changed over the past decade.

Almost a century since the collapse of its former empire, Turkey has become a regional power, setting itself the ambitious goal to become the 10th largest economy by 2023, when it will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding.

A century ago, at the end of WWI, the Ottoman Empire was in shreds; defeated by the Allied Powers in 1918, its military was exhausted and the great multi-ethnic realm, which at its peak had stretched from the outskirts of Vienna to Baghdad and Algiers, lay in ruins. Europeans have historically seen the Empire as a military threat.

Today it still bears the traces of many of the world’s ancient civilisations: Byzantines, Persians, and Macedonians. Nevertheless, following a series of political and economic reforms, the modern Turkish state that emerged has become increasingly focused on the West, and in 1999 was officially recognised as a candidate for membership in the European Union. Since then, it has been seesawing back and forth, dwarfing other accession bids in both scale and complexity.


Turkey in the money

Turkey’s recent rise has been engineered and crafted largely by Erdoğan, its often unpredictable prime minister. Over the last 10 years, Turkey has invested heavily in infrastructure and transportation systems, making it more attractive for foreign investors. Consequently, Turkey’s economy is booming, growing by 7.5% in 2011 compared to Austria’s 3%, according to the Austrian Chamber of Commerce (WKÖ). Europe’s strong trade relationship with Turkey has become increasingly important, as the Continent struggles to climb out of its double-dip recession. Turkey’s young population stands as the largest and closest potential labour market in the region. For years, business opportunities have increased and Turkey has emerged as a key property investment choice for 2012.

Austrian industry is also shifting its activities to the region. The two energy giants, OMV and Verbund AG, have long seen Turkey’s vast energy needs as an untapped market. The Austrian daily Wiener Zeitung reports that, in 2010, OMV purchased Petrol Ofisi, Turkey’s leading fuel products distribution and lubricants company with more than 3,600 gas stations. Furthermore, Austrian trade with Turkey has tripled since 2001.

Other major companies have also invested heavily in the country: Wolf-Dieter Kurz, Mercedes-Benz Türk’s chairman, reports investments of €44 million in the renovation of the Hoşdere factory from 2008 to 2010. But as Turkey’s economy has grown, so have its ambitions, seeking par with the Union.

In Berlin, Erdoğan’s meeting with Merkel served as both carrot and stick, combining harsh rhetoric with praise. He warned that if his country is not admitted as a member state by 2023, the EU "will lose Turkey." But Erdoğan also thanked Merkel, saying, "Germany, under both Christian Democrat and Social Democrat governments, has always supported Turkey."


On the road to Europe

Turkey expert Cengiz Günay of the Austrian Institute for International Politics (OIIP) highlights that "for the last 200 years, Turkish modernisers have sought adaptation to European norms, behaviour and practices." Thus, he says, integration with Europe would mean "the realisation of a long-held aspiration." Democratisation and liberalisation have been strongly sought by the Turkish electorate. During the Turkish stock market crash of 2001, for example, the EU was widely credited with guiding the country through the crisis. But the coalition that governed until 2002 seemed uninterested in integrating Turkey into the EU, leading to capital flight and voter frustration. When he took office in 2002, Erdoğan had strong European ambitions and expected that Turkey would be able to join the EU by 2012.

"The political criteria set by Copenhagen [the eligibility rules for the EU] have been largely fulfilled," said Jan Keetman, long-time Turkey correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse, at OIIP on 15 November. "With the prospect of EU accession, women’s rights and civil rights were strengthened; however, this process has reached a dead end." The Turkish public seems to have lost enthusiasm for the EU project. According to a survey published by the Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies (TAVAK), only 17% of the 1,110 Turks polled in June supported joining the EU – a huge drop from the estimated 75% in 2002.

Since the European Council recognised Turkey as a candidate in 1999, Ankara has encountered a series of obstacles, with member states giving the country the "cold shoulder" and Turkish politicians seeing a pattern of anti-Islamic prejudice. According to Internet newsportal Euractiv, the main divider is religion: "Europeans’ perception of ‘cultural differences’ appears to be rooted in their fear of Muslim – not necessarily Turkish – immigration." As a result, the vast majority are opposed to Turkish accession, including large political blocs in Austria, Greece and Cyprus. According to former German Vice-Chancellor Joschka Fischer in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, in October 2011: "Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy have more or less shut the door of accession in Turkey’s face, so Turkey has had to reposition itself strategically." The EU’s lukewarm interest in Turkey has stalled Ankara’s once rapid reform process.


Reaching a dead end

Despite Turkey being considered more democratic than its neighbours on the Bosporus, this could change. "There is a danger of Turkey becoming a ‘soft-authoritarian’ regime," Günay warned. Reforms required for EU accession have come to a halt and instead there has been increasing pressure on journalists to turn a blind eye to human rights violations. Independent media can be subject to costly tax audits that often drive them to ruin. Die Presse’s Keetman also blames the EU: "Europe also has to be held responsible for this development. By giving Turkey the cold shoulder, it didn’t take a closer look at the changes made to [Turkey’s] constitutional law in 2010, which allowed it to abuse power in many areas of public life, from the manipulation of political court cases to violations of press freedom." The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported that "Turkish authorities have mounted one of the world’s most widespread crackdowns on press freedom in recent history."


From regional mediator to regional power?

With accession talks on ice, Turkey has increasingly distanced itself from Europe and emerged instead as a pivotal regional actor. Under Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the country has shifted focus east, with the goal of acquiring sufficient power in the region to influence the West. To promote its "zero problems with neighbours" strategy, it entered free trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Tunisia and Morocco. Turkey also set up a free trade zone to improve economic relations with three of its Arab neighbours, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Thus Ankara had successfully positioned itself as the Middle Eastern "go-to" negotiator, brokering a deal with Iran to deliver low-enriched uranium following mediation talks in Tehran between Turkish and Brazilian leaders. Furthermore, European companies doing business in the Caucasus often prefer Turkey as a base of operations. The country hopes to further enhance its economic position in the region, bridging the gap between the West and the Arab world.

But the Arab Spring, which Turkey at first welcomed as an opportunity to strengthen itself as a regional power, has not brought the expected results. Rising tensions in Iraq and Syria have had ripple effects. In northern Iraq, Erdoğan’s efforts to deepen relations with the Kurdish population have aggravated Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In Syria, Turkey’s support for the Sunni-led opposition against the Bashar al-Assad regime has caused tension with Iran. The searing conflict has been bad for business in the Turkish border city of Antakya. Since the closure of the Syrian-Turkish border, freight operators are on the brink of bankrupcy.

Chancellor Merkel described the Syrian crisis as a "true burden" for Turkey and pledged additional support. Refugees are a growing problem: According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 93,576 registered refugees assisted by the Turkish government as of 1 October 2012.

And finally, the recent tensions between Turkey and Israel suggests that Davutoğlu’s "zero problems with neighbours" strategy has failed. Since Ankara’s earlier success as a Middle East negotiator, arranging peace talks between Syria and Israel, the game has changed dramatically, reaching its tipping point on 19 November when, as reported by the French news agency AFP, Prime Minister Erdoğan accused Israel of being a "terrorist state" that "massacres innocent children." Peace between the Jewish state and its neighbours is still a distant dream.

Resolving the issues hindering Turkey’s accession to the EU remains daunting, partly because Europe has taken a backseat in the negotiations in the minds of Turkish foreign policy makers.

As Erdoğan’s Berlin trip drew to a close, the German weekly Der Spiegel reported a convergence of "leftist groups, Kurds and Turkish religious minorities [that] accused the prime minister of pushing the country in the direction of further Islamisation and human rights violations." Supporters credit Erdoğan with elevating Turkey's profile in the Middle East, but as one crisis chases the next, Ankara’s true ambitions remain clouded.

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