Will Turkey be in the ‘winners’ club’ or the ‘losers’ pit’ by 2023 ? (1)

Will Turkey be in the ‘winners’ club’ or the ‘losers’ pit’ by 2023 ? (1)

16:23 01 June in ARTICLES, In English, PUBLICATIONS

Todays Zaman

A ‘devil’s advocate’ perspective on EU accession

| Today’s Zaman | 01 June, 2009 | 

MEHMET ÖĞÜTÇÜ *|  If I could look into my crystal ball to predict who the winners and losers of the global system would be by 2023 (the centenary year marking the founding of the Turkish Republic), do not expect me to paint a rosy picture of the future for today’s 27-state European Union.

The current recession will no doubt ease by the end of this year, though the deep-seated systemic problems will remain, and companies will begin taking on workers again, signaling the end of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

This setback may herald a new era in the global system, fundamentally altering the political and economic balance of power. The post-crisis prospects also look certain to shake the established institutions, rules and players, redefining a gradually emerging “new world order” that will likely cut back the influence and power of superpowers such as the US, Japan and the EU to the benefit of BRICs (an acronym for the developing countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China).

Tomorrow’s EU turning into a ‘Euro-Disneyland’?

To maintain its current position, let alone compete with others, the EU needs to reconnect its priorities and interests with the current and anticipated challenges faced by its people, visibly demonstrate the 21st century relevance of the concept “Europe” if it is not going to become the world’s “Euro-Disneyland” and give the policy answers to these challenges first and then let institutional change help deliver them, rather than the other way around.

This is to say that, unless Europe takes surgical action soon, its further economic and political decline is almost inevitable. Without comprehensive reform, continental Europe’s overprotected, overregulated economies will continue to slow down and deteriorate. This does not mean that Italy, Germany, France, the UK and other now-prosperous countries will become poor; on the contrary, their standard of living will remain comfortable. It is the division between “old and new Europe” that will deepen. Europe’s political and economic clout could become less relevant on the world scene.

The prospects could be even worse if the aging population is allowed to put greater strain on the public health and social security systems, if the erosion of its international competitiveness in relation to China and India (and other emerging “tigers”) continues, if the transatlantic dialogue with the United States does not evolve further than where it is, if Russia and Ukraine are not somehow accommodated within or with the EU and if the EU cannot pull its various acts together to become a single voice in foreign, security and energy policies.

Why did I become a euro-skeptic?

I do not want to sound like a harbinger of doom because there are also positive developments to inspire optimism, and the future can take a turn for the better if the right actions and approaches are taken in a timely manner.

However, against the preceding context and because of the bad way Turkey has been treated by the EU over the past half a century, I cannot help but tend to be more a euro-skeptic than euro-phile.

The longer one lives on this island of Great Britain, less than an hour’s ferry ride from Calais to Dover, the closer one becomes to the viewpoint of the “euro-skeptics club.” We know that the British have never been terribly popular members of the EU from the outset. It is no wonder why; its membership in the EU had been vetoed several times during the tenure of France’s Charles de Gaulle. Long before they joined, many continental Europeans thought the British were too different to be constructive members of what was then the European Economic Community. London has always preferred its American cousins across the Atlantic and valued Commonwealth relations.

However, the Brits are honest. They do not hide their dislike of the continental Europeans’ approach to economy and life and generally despise the federalist vision of Europe. But when it comes to implementing the acquis communautaire, they are more effective than the most fervent members of the “federal Europe” dream. There is, of course, no unanimity of opinion on Europe, with New Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats often taking some divergent paths. Yet, a doubting stance lingers on, and I have happily acquired this “virus” here.

Perhaps reluctantly, I have come to empathize with the euro-skeptical approach, particularly while working professionally — as a diplomat, as part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) staff, and now as a multinational corporation executive –with EU institutions and politicians. My views have become stronger after having closely observed the bureaucracy and inefficacy of the European Commission, squandering its annual 133 billion euro budget, while the European Parliament makes unfocused and inconsistent decisions backed by uncapped salaries and fringe benefits. Few good long-term strategic decisions are made. Low performance levels plague many policy initiatives. There is a general insensitivity and arrogance harbored, when not openly displayed, toward other cultures and interests.

My discussion with those opposed to Turkey’s EU accession on whatever grounds, be it economic, religious, cultural, geographic or political, usually begins with the statement, “Actually, just like you, we also do not look warmly on accession prospects, but for a variety of different reasons.”

This serves as a cold shower and strong reminder that Turks should not be taken for granted and are not clinging to anybody’s coattails. Then, I list the good reasons, without empty rhetoric, why Turkey should not be interested in membership if the Turkish accession dossier will continue to be handled the way it is.

What has often been forgotten in Europe is that the level of support as indicated by opinion polls and the rewording of political party manifestos regarding the EU is declining in Turkey. There is a large and growing opposition inside Turkey to entry into the EU — emanating from not only ultra-nationalists, religious fanatics or hard-line soldiers keen on sovereignty and suspicious of the “real” intentions of the EU. Plus, the unfairness and hypocrisy displayed on the Cyprus settlement have further fueled anti-accession sentiment in the country.

At any rate, the feeling is that we do not have to prove Turkey is an essential part of this historical-geographical territory called Europe. We have been living in this space for much longer than most new EU members. We are proud to be Europeans, but at the same time Caucasian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Balkan — none of the other Europeans have such a rich diversity and wide outreach.

There is no question that the EU is suffering from enlargement fatigue. There is widespread concern, rightly or wrongly, that Romania and Bulgaria may have been admitted prematurely. Even before the current crisis, commentators in Brussels were betting on Croatian accession in 2011 (although that is looking increasingly problematic), with accession for Turkey and the Western Balkans effectively kicked into the long grass, behind a fig leaf of extended membership talks with no momentum.

The EU has regrettably lost much of its reputational capital in the eyes of most Turks in the street. To my great surprise, the youth, both well educated and self-confident, as well as strong nationalists, are more skeptical of the EU than the “old guards.” Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel have not helped much by insisting on the so-called “privileged partnership” at the expense of undermining the basic tenets of the “pacta sunt servanda” (Latin for “agreements must be kept”). This is not to say that Turks have done their bit of homework and met their obligations and that all the blame should be at the EU’s door.

The widening gap between unfulfilled expectations and the EU’s functioning feeds public euro-skepticism. The EU’s unceasing reform demands and reluctance for Turkish accession have further fueled mistrust, focusing the “EU debate” on the cost of accession without much in the way of economic benefits while putting on a “strait jacket” in many areas of vital importance — a perfect example of an asymmetrical relationship.

Communicating on the same wavelength

Frankly speaking, I take particular pleasure in airing contrarian views on this issue and being part of the debate as to why Turkey might be better off without full membership if the EU’s current behavior does not change.

The real cost to the EU of Turkey’s non-accession needs to be visibly highlighted. After all, there are already more than enough unconditional pro-EU supporters in Turkey. Hence, what we need are people who can act as qualified “devil’s advocates” and show those Turkey-bashing souls that there is another side to the coin and that Turkey cannot be pushed around at their pleasure.

Our objective in doing so, of course, is not to disparage the EU to the point of leading people to think that there is “no real future for Turkey in the EU; we should turn our face towards the east or the north,” as some of my compatriots propose. Instead, our aim is to inject a healthy dose of realism and skepticism into the generally rosy vistas presented to us, as well as to encourage the development of a balanced and acceptable “give and take” approach for the accession process.

As Turkey’s opponents argue, it is true that the eventual accession will considerably change the future outlook of both Turkey and the EU. Surely, the EU with Turkey as a member will look quite different from anything its founding fathers ever envisaged. The union will face the challenge of fundamentally redefining itself, progressively changing from an entity largely concerned with economic and social redistribution via its agricultural, cohesion and structural funds into a global actor that invests more in competitiveness, infrastructure, research and development, poverty reduction, military capability and border protection.

Admittedly, this process will not be easy politically since there will be strong opposition from domestic sectors adversely affected in nearly every country including Turkey.

Hence, whether Turkish accession will be for better or worse in the final analysis depends very much on how both sides will agree to interact from the outset toward a commonly perceived vision.

*Mehmet Öğütçü is a Mülkiye, London School of Economics and Collège d’Europe graduate, former Turkish diplomat and senior Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) staffer and currently a major multinational corporation executive. He is also the author of “Turkey’s 2023 Roadmap” (Etkilesim, 2008) and “Does Our Future Lie with Rising Asia?” (Milliyet, 1998).