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Not really talking Turkey

Posted by Helen Thursday, July 07, 2005 ,

Back in January, when I attended the Euromoney plc conference on EU enlargement in Vienna, one of the most interesting statements was made by the high-ranking representative of the ruling party in Turkey.

He explained to his listeners that what many people in his country valued was the process of becoming more European and acquiring European standards. The attempt to negotiate a membership of the EU was part of that process but if the aim was not achieved it did not matter all that much.

This curious but, in many ways, logical argument surfaced in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Europe [subscription only]. While “the majority of Turks remain committed to EU membership”, writes Dan Bilefsky, there is a growing “scepticism”. (Presumably, Mr Bilefsky feels that anyone who is doubtful of the EU is a eurosceptic.)

The feeling that, perhaps, membership of the EU is not absolutely essential, as long as Turkey acquires some or most of the European standards in politics, law and economics, has many roots.

There is, above all, a resentment that Turkey is not considered to be good enough to join the club. The strong anti-Turkish sentiments voiced in a number of the member states and in the referendums of France and the Netherlands have excited a reciprocal anti-EU feelings that could easily lead to general anti-European ones.

The nationalist Umit Ozdag is being listened to more carefully than before and his party’s popularity has gone up by 5 per cent in the last few weeks, though the article does not say what it has gone up to.

Mr Ozdag’s analysis of Turkey’s relationship with the EU has a curious air of a folk tale:

“If you buy a pair of shoes for $100 and the salesman says, ‘Sorry, I need to check with theowner whether you can take the shoes home,’ or offers you a different pair of shoes you didn’t want, would you like that? That is the relationship between Turkey and the EU, and we have had enough.”
Mr Ozdag seems pretty clear that it is the EU he is talking about, not Europe. Would that other politicians and commentators were equally clear.

There are more tangible resentments. While the various EU regulations are being imposed as part of the preliminary stages of the negotiations the advantages are less visible.
“A May poll by the Istanbul-based Economic Development Foundation showed a 31% drop in Turkish support for EU membership, to 63% from 94% a year earlier, as Turks tire of grappling with conditions heaped on the EU bid. These include a ban on the cross-border movement of Turkish workers into EU nations, even after Turkey joins. That prohibition also has angered Turkish companies, which want to be able to move their turkish workers around the world’s biggest trading bloc.

… Even though Turkey isn’t yet in the EU … steel companies are being forced to limit the amount of steel they can produce to satisfy EU policymakers who don’t want cheap Turkish steel to flood the EU market. The company also has had to upgrade its steel plants’ environmental standards to EU specifications. Meanwhile, rising wages in Turkey – spurred by the accession process – have made it more difficult [for Turkish steel companies] to compete against rival producers in low-cost countries such as China, Ukraine and Iran.”
Unexpected people voice doubts. Onur Oymen, former ambassador to numerous European countries and to NATO, who had helped draft Turkey’s customs union with the then EEC, is now deputy leader of the main opposition party.

He is openly wondering whether it would not be better for Turkey to have close economic links with the EU like Norway or Switzerland.

And, he reminded the journalist, there is another option: the Middle East and a possible leadership of the Islamic world.

Mr Oymen is so incensed by the anti-Turkish sentiments expressed in Europe that he is proposing that Turkey should retaliate
“… by denying use of its military assets in NATO to countries that try to obstruct its EU membership.”
Given Turkey’s important role in NATO and pivotal geographical position, that could be a serious threat, as could the other one of depriving those countries of lucrative oil contracts.

Then again, there is another sentiment, expressed by a somewhat sceptical Ugur Dalbeler, managing director of a large steel producing company. In ten or fifteen years’ time the EU might need Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. Given various economic and military factors, that could be all too true.