STAIRWAY TO EUROPE

Turkey 2011 | DIPLOMACY | FOCUS: THE EU

Turkey is seeking admission to the European club. While its application is controversial in some corners of Europe, the economic benefits Turkey can both receive and bring to the equation are keeping the government keen.

The train for Turkey's EU accession has been long delayed in leaving the station, even with the official negotiation process beginning in 2005. Having impressed in the EU's 2010 Turkey Progress Report due to its economic resilience over the crisis, improved democratic standards, and active foreign policy, the country looks set to continue its push for membership following the election victory of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in June 2011, following a long period of negotiation inactivity.

While the EU has singled out Turkey's unwillingness to open its ports to Greek Cyprus as the main reason for the lack of progress in opening negotiation chapters, Turkey's focus of late has been on freer visa requirements, which its business community has demanded to simplify the process of conducting trade with the EU. Bilateral trade figures, despite seeing a drop compared to the strengthening trade ties between Turkey and its eastern neighbors over the crisis period, still suggest strong economic bonds between the EU and Turkey, with almost half of all Turkish exports destined for EU markets.

So far, 13 out of a required 33 negotiation chapters have been opened since 2005, and only three unopened chapters remain that are not politically blocked due to the Cyprus issue or French objections. The Cyprus matter remains contentious, with the opening eight chapters of negotiations frozen as a result of the Turkish government's refusal to adopt a trade pact allowing Greek Cypriot vessels to use its air and sea ports in response to the EU's foot dragging on easing an embargo on Turkish Cyprus. While French President Sarkozy is openly lobbying against Turkey's entry, German Chancellor Merkel has favored a privileged membership solution, a prospect that Turkey has rejected. Austria has also voiced its opposition to full accession, yet Turkey has received strong public backing from Britain, Spain, the Nordic countries, and even Greece.

A Customs Union has existed between the EU and Turkey since 1995, and the EU is Turkey's largest trading partner, as the source of close to 40% of Turkey's imports and as a destination for almost half of its exports, according to the Export Promotion Center of Turkey (IGEME). Turkey's largest market for exports is Germany, with over $2 billion worth of products exported to the country in 2010, according to trade statistics. The country's next biggest export partners were Italy, at $1.29 billion, the UK with $1.91 billion, Iraq with $1.3 billion, and France, coming in at $1.02 billion. German exports to Turkey also reached $3 billion, behind Russia with close to $4 billion, China with just over $3 billion, and ahead of the US and Italy, on $2.5 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively.

Diplomatic relations with EU states have generally been improving of late, especially with Greece. Nevertheless, Turkey's “zero problems with neighbors" policy has alarmed some Western commentators, who are worried that Turkey's strengthening ties with its non EU-neighbors are a signal that Turkey is giving up on Europe. However, İbrahim Kalın, Prime Minister Erdoğan's chief foreign policy adviser, has argued that this activism is not a reaction to disappointments in the EU arena, but “a fully rational attempt to seize new spaces of opportunity".

Should Turkey join the EU, it would today be the sixth largest economy, and have the second biggest population in the bloc. Egemen Bağış, Turkish Minister of EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, told TBY that “Turkey's accession will increase the size of the European internal market as well as the competitiveness of the European Union in the global economy." In addition, Minister Bağış commented that “over 70% of the crude oil and natural gas reserves that the EU needs are in the areas surrounding Turkey", and that therefore, “Turkey's cooperation is a must for Europe to resolve its energy crisis."