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Turkey on their minds

Posted by Helen Monday, October 11, 2004

Turkey seems to be on everybody’s mind. Naturally, I do not mean the bird but the country and its possible entry into the European Union. The question is almost entirely academic since all that has happened is that the Commission has recommended negotiations. The Council of Ministers will have to take the final decision in December. Normally, that is a foregone conclusion but one cannot be entirely certain on such a ticklish subject.

Then the negotiations will start. They are predicted to carry on for ten years at the very least. Who knows what will happen by then? Still, opinions are being aired in the media. Some are fairly vacuous, others much more substantial. One of the latter was Roger Bootle’s column in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph. The piece was entitled unambigously: Why we must let Turkey into the EU.

Mr Bootle, as behoves an economist, starts off with all the many reasons why taking Turkey into the EU would be little short of madness: large and ever growing population, economic backwardness and social otherness, geographic extension well beyond European shores, political instability. Then he adds:

“Given all this, it should be obvious what an economist like myself should think about Turkish entry. I am, of course, in favour of it.”

Sensibly, Mr Bootle does not bother to explain away or even finesse the difficulties he had laid out. Instead, he produces a double argument to show that Turkey’s membership of the Union would be a good thing for both sides, doubly so for the EU.

Membership of the EU and, even more so, preparations for it, argues Mr Bootle has done wonders for “poor countries with troubled political histories”. These are three: Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of whom have benefited from entry, economically and politically.

“Improvements extend beyond the narrowly economic into the fields of politics and human rights. But these have economic consequences as well. Full democracies bound by the rule of law rarely if ever descend into the blatant incompetence and kleptocracy that is the fate of so many dictatorships.”

Naturally enough, a stable and prosperous Turkey would be of great benefit to her European neighbours. We do not want her to slide into Islamic fundamentalism, but, as Roger Bootle does not add, neither is it entirely satisfactory that the main prop against that fundamentalism is the army.

Secondarily, Mr Bootle thinks that the entry of Turkey and, possibly, even just the negotiations with her, would change the nature of the EU.

“The fundamental narrative of the EU is the tension between widening and deepening. Wild enthusiasts like to think that the EU can do both, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we will not be able to run even the current EU as an integrated political unit, never mind a much larger union. With Turkey in, this would become blindingly obvious.”
Ah yes, the dear old widening versus deepening debate. How often have I heard this since Bill Jamieson and I first raised doubts about enlargement to the east as it was being contemplated (and has been carried out ) in 1998.

Enlargement is a good thing despite all the problems on both sides, we were told, because by widening we can prevent deepening of European integration. No, said we (together with successive Commission Presidents), given the nature of the European Union and the aim of the “European project”, which can be achieved only by greater integration. The very existence of the project requires that, in order to widen, we need to deepen. The Treaties of Amesterdam and Nice, as well as the proposed Constitution, all of them supposedly essential for enlargement but really for the completion of the project, have proved us right. But some people prefer not to learn the lessons.

It is, of course, true that a politically stable, socially mature and economically prosperous Turkey would be to our benefit and would also be, incidentally, a completion of the Kemalist revolution. But is membership of the EU absolutely essential to it? After all, the entity Turkey would be entering would not be a mature democracy or a democracy of any kind. In fact, it could be described as a body of frequent incomptence and kleptocracy and, therefore, not a particularly good example to a country struggling to find its place in the modern world.

Could Turkey not benefit from a creation of a free market across Europe, including Asia Minor, in goods, services and financial ventures? I am just throwing this suggestion out for discussion. Would it not be a good idea for us and, in particular for France and Germany, to stop growling at that country and scream abuse at the slightest departure from the norms that apparently are inessential for “our friends” such as China, Libya and Saddam’s Iraq? In other words, are there any other solutions to our relationship with neighbouring countries apart from lengthy and frustrating membership negotiations and the imposition of completely inappropriate rules and regulations?

Which brings me to Roger Bootle’s final argument. It is actually quite an interesting one. He disagrees with the “fanatical supporters of the EU”, who hold that the economic development of the Continental economies in the first years after the Treaty of Rome is due to that document. Clearly, “the countries of core Europe were set to grow strongly without the EU” or, even, the EEC as it then was. Furthermore, Mr Bootle, might have added, the biggest growth came before the wretched thing was set up.

He does, however, add that “more recently, its large members have been held back by the EU’s emphasis on regulation and harmonisation and its suppression of competition”. Win some, lose some, one might say, though the recent losses are beginning to be very alarming.

The real benefit of the EU has been to

“the peripheral countries of Europe to aspire to core European standards of living and extending democracy and accountable government to countries that had been plagued by dictatorships.

In this way, the EU has played the role that the great empires, including the British, have sometimes played in the past, bringing a measure of prosperity and stability to areas that might otherwise fall prey to tinpot nationalism and bad government.

Historians will surely judge the success of the EU not by its contribution to raising German living standards but rather by what it has done for Spain, Portugal, Greece and the former communist states of eastern Europe. Doing the same thing for Turkey would be an enormous triumph.”
This sounds so wonderful that it takes a little while to work out that, actually, it is bunkum. Helping peripheral countries at the expense of economic growth and political democracy in the core member states (where does Britain fit in here?) sounds little short of idiotic. Surely, there could have been another way. In fact, there are various other ways and, having missed our opportunity to change the nature of the EU before we took in the East European countries, we had better try to get it right before Turkey even begins to negotiate. But we won’t.

In any case, which peripheral countries are we talking about? I notice Mr Bootle does not mention Ireland, which has also benefited economically from membership, then decided to increase the benefits by changing its tax system, much to the annoyance of certain other member states. One can debate what has helped Ireland more, its low taxation or the large amount of EU money pouring into the country, which has ensured that the usual effects of tax cuts did not have to be contemplated and no hard political choices had to be made. But, one cannot possibly argue that without the EU it was “plagued by dictatorships”.

That leaves the three peripheral Mediterranean countries: Spain, Portugal and Greece. Yes, they have remained democratic, though in the case of Greece, probably less essentially so than the others, and more corrupt.

But how much of that is due to the EU and how much to the determination of its own people and, even, leaders, in particular, King Juan Carlos? In any case, the real test has not been faced yet: a lessening and, finally, cessation of constant EU funds, subsidies, effectively bribes. Will those economies survive and if they do not, will the democracies? So far, all attempts to cut back on such things are regional funding or subsidies for tobacco farmers have met shrieks of horror and stubborn heel drumming as well as threats of social and economic break-down. A complete success? That remains to be seen.

What about Eastern Europe? The first thing to be said is that six months after the entry into the EU is hardly the time to pass final judgements. The second thing is that it was not precisely tinpot dictators they were suffering from before 1989 but a complex, well-worked out and deeply oppressive political system. The consequences of that system and its collapse are still being worked out in Eastern Europe as well as the former Soviet Union, not least its largest and most important member, Russia.

However, it is fair to say that the determination of the Central European countries (and, really, they are the ones that have become part of the EU) to develop democratic systems and to stick to them has been quite astonishing. It happened without any help from the EU, which, as our readers may recall, was very wary about negotiations for several years after the wall’s destruction.

Equally astonishing has been those countries’ determination to liberalize much of their economy. Mr Bootle is a little disingenuous in his suggestion that this process took place as a result of negotiations with the EU. On the contrary, several of the new member states have found that they have had to reverse some of the liberalizing legislation, in order to fit in with the EU’s own less than liberal order.

Nor has that process stopped, as we can see with the repeated attempts to change the corporate tax rates and the demands that all the various economic, social and environmental regulations be put into place, in order that the core countries should have no real competition in the east. What makes Mr Bootle think that only the large members are held back by regulation, harmonization and suppression of competition?

Has Turkey benefited from negotiations with the EU so far? Hard to say. It is beginning to do things that fit the EU’s image of what a country should be like in order to become a member but is that necessarily of benefit? Will it benefit from further negotiations, assuming they actually happen? Possibly. But, equally, possibly not.

The East Europeans found that once real negotiations started they were so badly treated and bullied and cheated to such an extent that support for entry collapsed in those countries. With Turkey being somewhat more volatile politically, the same process could have serious consequences.