Turkey’s invigorated geopolitical significance, marked by the recent visit of President Obama to Ankara, alongside with its capability to exercise soft power in Central Asia and Middle East suffice for the EU to consider Turkey as an important ally. This op-ed does not aim to undermine or negate the benefits of a functioning Partnership, but simply poses the question, from a European perspective, whether full membership is to date a viable vehicle to this respect. Notwithstanding the particularities of the Turkish case, this issue is part of a larger debate regarding the vision of the EU as a global actor and the establishment – if any – of its ‘final frontiers’.
It is not hard to track down the major arguments in favour of EU developing close ties with Turkey: promote security, democracy and stability in the outer EU borders, create an appealing –to the Muslim world- profile of increasing religious diversity and include in the common market an emerging super-economy comprising an enormous ‘potential’, especially in terms of future consumers and human resources.
However, most of the recent debate is centred on the notion of EU’s limited ‘absorption capacity’. Given that the smooth integration of the new members is not to be taken for granted, it is now the time for the EU to closely monitor the effectiveness of using enlargement as a foreign policy tool. This discussion is de-constructed into the following more precise and objective components: the capability of EU’s internal market, labour market, budget, eurozone and institutional system to absorb new member states, society’s capacity to absorb immigration and EU’s capacity for assuring its strategic security. Although there is a division among both the political elite and the public opinion on this matter (others claiming an enlargement fatigue, while others remaining enthusiastic to an idea of an irreversible, constant expansion), it is the assessment of the ramifications of the last enlargement round that will determine the fate of Turkey’s perspectives. As soon as the Lisbon regime becomes operative and the new institutional balances are established, EU will be in a better position to calculate the impact of accession of the most sizeable candidate ever in the long EU’s enlargement history.
The cultural and religious differences are frequently – but in a rather generalized fashion – invoked as a reason against full membership. To my view, this argument by itself cannot rule out Turkish accession, as long as the negotiations will continue to be based on Turkey’s own merits and the pace of reforms, and no compromises shall be made to accommodate Turkey’s cultural particularities. The adoption of acquis and adaptation to EU’s political, social and economic standards over the years has been a matter of meeting clear, objective and predetermined goals that inherently presuppose fundamental changes in the political and social culture of the various candidate states. Greece’s premature accession also posed some similar cultural questions at that time, not to mention a significant dissenting minority on the ground. Nevertheless, despite this speculation, Greece gradually integrated in the European structures and now identifies itself as one of the oldest and most committed members of the Union.
The main concern regarding Turkey remains the level of commitment to democratic governance that would defy corruption and establish total respect for the rule of law in a country where the military still plays a significant –constitutionally recognized- role in forming the political agenda. The recent revelation of the activities of the clandestine, secular ultra-nationalist Ergenekon organization is indicative of the parallel governance schemes that pervade Turkish deep state. While other countries of the Southeast Europe have undertaken critical democratic reforms (especially Serbia, Croatia and Albania) and have renounced their former authoritative practices in the name of an uncertain European perspective, Turkey has failed to do so, although it has been ten years, since it was attributed the status of candidate country. Democratic stability is also challenged by a politicized judiciary that interferes with executive tasks, thus contributing to an even more complicated pattern of governance characterized by the lack of a western-styled operative ‘checks and balances’ system.
Another major issue is Turkey’s repeated failure to comply with international human rights standards, especially with regard to freedoms of expression and religion, as well as enforce decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The Cyprus problem is also connected to this regard, since Turkey still imposes restrictions on property rights and fundamental freedoms of Greek Cypriots living in the northern part of the island, where Turkey –that still does not officially recognize the state of Cyprus- is de facto exercising sovereignty by means of maintaining occupying forces. To this end, EU’s own credibility and prestige would be challenged and eventually irreversibly damaged, if it were to show any kind of tolerance to issues concerning democracy and human rights that constitute the cornerstones of the European common vision.
Also, the implications of the free movement of labor should not be underestimated. It is true that the experiences of Greece, Portugal and Spain indicate that a successful accession period with high growth and effective implementation of reforms gradually eliminates the migration pressures. Nevertheless, under the current economic crisis, the magnitude of which has not yet be determined, the odds are that foreign direct investment in Turkey will be reduced and growth rates will stall, thus accommodating an extended immigration wave. Moreover, Turkey had already a steady annual net migration of 40,000 to EU-15 up to 2004, a trend that might be facilitated and increased if full membership is achieved.
Moreover, recent developments on energy issues prove that Turkey may be unable or not unequivocally committed to promote at the time the EU-favoured agenda. The Turkish administration failed to close a deal with Baku that resulted to Azerbaijan and Russia edge closer to a gas deal, thus depriving the Nabucco and TGI pipelines of their essential resources. In addition, the failed attempt to tie the development of the Nabucco project with its membership perspectives reveal an immature approach on crucial security issues that question the genuine character of Turkey’s European ambitions.
To sum up, if Turkey were to become a full member of the EU at the moment, it would be most due to overall geopolitical considerations rather than strict application of compliance to EU standards. But such a scenario prerequisites a strong, united and ambitious European foreign policy that would market the EU structures on a global basis as the modern, democratic role model for the countries all over the world to follow. I am strongly convinced that at the moment there is no such consent, not even potential dynamic among the major European allies.