The accession negotiations between Turkey and the European Union began in 2005, on the grounds of the application for EU membership that Turkey had submitted in 1987. Today, after four years of negotiations the outcome remains tentative, mostly because the prospect of a Turkish EU membership raises much opposition and controversy evident discomfort among governments and citizens of the EU members.
Although Turkey gradually employs all the necessary political and economical reforms to meet the criteria for the European Union membership, there is a growing concern regarding its potential EU accession. The differences cited by those opposed to Turkish EU membership focus on the Muslim factor, geographical position, population size, inefficient agricultural sector, extreme protectionism for certain industries, unsettled external political conflicts, unsolved historical responsibilities, violation of human rights, relative social backwardness and limited civilian control over the armed forces.
In spite of any opposition, Turkish membership holds enormous promise for the current EU members, beyond the enlargement of the common market by 72 million consumers with an average purchasing power, and a substantial growth potential.
Widely regarded as a moderate voice in the Middle East, Turkey is respected as a fair facilitator of conflict resolution by both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite the reaction of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the World Economic Forum of Davos in January 2009, to roundly lambaste Israeli military actions, Turkey is seen as a peacemaker in the Middle East. A potential EU membership would provide Turkey with greater credibility facilitating its positive role for the country and the broader region.
Turkish membership would lead to solid EU policies on the South. Developments in the Middle East have profound ramifications on Europe’s stability and security, regardless if the EU shares direct borders with Iran, Syria or Iraq. Turkey, having a pivotal role at the center of the Eurasian region and having major political influence on the Turkic-language democracies in Central Asia, can automatically transform the EU to a global political player.
The accession of the Central and Eastern European countries in 2004 has altered the setting of the European Union from a block of primarily rich industrial countries to a heterogeneous economic block with a growing number of transition economies. In this context, economic and monetary policies have become stricter to enforce internal market regulations in the industrial core countries and ensure global competitiveness. One of the major success factors of the Turkish economy is its advanced trade integration. Turkey participates since 1995 in the EU internal market for goods due to its custom union agreement (involves the elimination of tariffs on imports for the EU members and the adoption of a common external tariff on imports for non-EU members). This has allowed Turkey to reach a higher degree of integration quicker than the CEEs, which led to trade creation. Ultimately, this increased the share of total exports as a percentage of GDP and the increased share of the EU in the Turkish trade.
Turkey has a great potential in labor force, which will continue to grow, particularly after a possible EU membership. The fact that in many CEEs the labor force growth seems to be shrinking gives Turkey a great competitive advantage and potentially more drive. Currently, the working population of Turkey increases by approximately 1.5 percent faster than the global population each year. If Turkey acquires the EU membership, it automatically has ample room for demographic transition that will also boost the aging labor force in many EU members.
On the other hand, the agricultural sector is inefficient. Similar to other CEEs, Turkey occupies one third of its labor force in agriculture, but this accounts only for the 12 percent of the GDP. Currently, Turkey runs a trade surplus in agricultural goods because it specializes in fruit, vegetable and nut production and the imports of those goods are not hampered by the EU. A potential EU membership would force Turkey to increase its farm number and size and employ more and better skilled human capital, which are reforms that the agricultural sector, at its current condition, might not be able to afford.
Admittedly, in parts of the Turkish society, there still practices that undermine female dignity. Domestic violence, arranged marriages, crimes of honor, and an overall backward society that excludes women from schooling, occupation and health care and doesn’t really care for the EU accession. Besides, although there has been some progress compared to the situation a decade ago or more, there are still incidents of writers and political dissenters, allegations of torture and human rights violations. Maybe this is the most difficult obstacle for Turkey to overcome and be admitted to the EU block.
In conclusion, possible failure of the Turkish negotiations for accession would possibly destabilize the credibility of the EU at home and abroad. The experience of other countries that have acquired the EU membership such as Greece, Spain or Portugal has shown that it would make more sense to work with Turkey while it makes all the necessary reforms to ensure convergence than to continue until it fails to meet the criteria. If the EU really needs Turkey in the coalition as much as Turkey needs the EU, the accession negotiations and the subsequent transition period should address all the issues and differences upon their emergence.