Turkey – Part of Europe or Part of the Middle East?

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The debate about whether Turkey should join the European Union has raged ever since the idea was first raised in 1963, along with a dozen sub arguments about if they join, when they join, on what terms and so on. Turkey’s membership is both an enormous opportunity for Europe and an enormous risk, and the European Union being as it is such a fragmented coalition of states and cultures cannot even get close to a common position.

Turkey’s status is rather like its geographic position. The country is between the west and the east. It is Muslim yet it is (remarkably for a Muslim state) secular. It has suffered from repeated bouts of intervention by its military from 1960 to 1997 but democracy has triumphed and Turkey has developed into a significant regional power. The US is largely responsible for ensuring Turkey’s independence after WWII and the country has been a member of NATO since 1952. Turkey has played a delicate but broadly speaking pro western game for the last 20-30 years but in just the last few years it has shown an increasing willingness to get involved in Middle Eastern affairs. Josef Joffe in a Reuters article proposed that Turkey’s willingness to engage more actively with other Arab countries could well be a recognition that regional power is changing there. With Egypt sidelined by its neighbors in the Middle East after years of cooperation with Israel and the west, and Saudi Arabia frozen into inaction by fear of a rising Iran, leadership of the Arab, or at least the Sunni Arab world is up for grabs. If as some believe Iraq implodes when the US leaves, Turkey will almost certainly step in to seize the northern half; securing both immensely valuable Kurdish oilfields and simultaneously removing the safe haven for Kurdish separatists that have long been a thorn in Turkey’s side.

Meanwhile the EU cannot decide what to do as regards Turkish membership of the club. Early in its existence the core countries feared competition from lower wage economies being brought into the tariff free community but in reality greater export opportunities outweighed greater competition and no country would now leave on the grounds of trade or competitive disadvantage. As the community expanded from the original 6 to take in southern Club Med and east European countries, several other problems have arisen. The first is immigration. Gideon Rachman in a different Reuters article explained how the British government suggested that about 13,000 Poles would move to Britain to work after Poland joined the union. The real number was well over half a million although as no-one had the means to measure the actual figure it is believed to be up to 50% higher. Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicholas Sarkozy of France are both opposed to Turkish membership. Germany has a long tradition of using transient Turkish workers in its economy and fears it would be a natural target of mass immigration. France already has such a problem with the size of its growing Muslim population that it distorts its politics. Turkey has a population of 72 million and rising. Membership of the EU confers freedom of movements in goods and people, although recent east European entrants have had transition arrangements delaying full rights for a few years after joining.

Economically Turkey already enjoys certain benefits due to its proximity and close association with Europe. Aluminum semi finished products in which Turkey is a significant producer of extrusions and flat rolled products are duty exempt into the EU. But steel products in which Turkey is a major regional player still incur some duties. Turkey is the second largest producer of steel in Europe and a major supplier of rebar, wire rod, tubular products and castings to the rest of Europe and the Middle East. Not surprisingly, for a country with a rising population and which has been rapidly industrializing for the last 20 years many of the products it produces are orientated towards the construction and automotive industries, so in addition to the steel products above, aluminum extrusions and copper wire are also major product strengths.

Economically Turkey is still some way from becoming a member of the single currency even if it joined the European Union. Tiny Greece with 11 million people has placed enough of a strain on the Euro, what could Turkey do with 72 million! But if an agreement could be reached that would uniquely remove the right to freedom of movement to work in the European Union then membership on purely trade grounds is conceivable although the human rights lawyers in the European Court would no doubt challenge such an agreement as discriminatory. The alternative is Europe could lose Turkey to the east and its growing role as a Middle eastern power.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (8)

  1. Mehmet says:

    If EU is able to admit Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland just a few years ago, countries that are more populated and not richer than Turkey when combined, without any freedom of movement restrictions, what makes that a requirement for Turkey’s membership? The only difference is those are Christian majority countries and Turkey is not, this is purely a demographical concept and not economical. As such, EU should just reject Turkey’s membership honestly, not by offering insulting strings attached offers years after the full candidate status was granted, or by putting forward invalid concerns such as population, economy or geography(there is a %100 Asian country in EU, guess who).

    On the is Turkey in Europe or Middle East topic, there is no Middle East. What is it in the middle of and what is it on the east of? Looking from Japan it’s far west. So if we think for a moment that Europe is not the center of the world, there is no middle east. From Turkey it looks like west is going more west alienating themselves from the rest of the world that’s why the “center” is looking more “east” to them. From a European point of view, that is the western european point of view, there is no 1 Europe. There is western europe, which is close to scandanavia and south europe politically, there is Balkans and there is north eastern Europe mostly still under Russian influence, even those in EU. As such Turkey is partly a south eastern European nation with a wider influence than most of the other EU countries.

    Admission of Turkey to the EU, can give EU the kind of political influence boost it needs, since 1986, almost a quarter century, the admission of Spain and Portugal. From many aspects, Turkey is more European than anything else. That is a fact, unless one’s definition is EU is a union of christian nations.

  2. Stuart says:

    Dear Mehmet,
    Whilst you are unlikely to ever get a politician to admit it i suspect you are right in that much of the concern about Turkey is that it is a massive predominantly muslim country, not that it is simply a country with a large population. I use the phrase Middle East, as many do, simply because it is a well understood label for a region of the world, but i take your point regarding east of what, it is clearly a hangover from a previous century. Any better suggestions for labelling the region would be welcome, subject to still ensuring clarity on the region being discussed, we would be happy to consider alternatives.
    Thanks for the thoughtful comments though, your points are well taken.
    Ed.

  3. Mehmet says:

    Yes well, I probably sounded too tempered when I now read the post again. It is due to the double standards Turkey has been facing throughout this whole candidacy. I, in no way, suggest that Turkey is a perfect, or an above the EU standards country. But after 2004, the EU policy changed towards a quantity rather than quality kind of way and the “Turkey is not fit to join” arguments are no more valid since the likes of Romania, Bulgaria admitted as full members. In Turkey, we are honestly fed up with EU and people read the news about EU with an attention they have for the 2012: The end of the world kind of news. It is nothing more than a fairy tale anymore. It is disappointing on the part of EU that after all the reinnesance, reforms, post world wars era, all high values and everything, it only comes down to a christian-muslim dispute, which sort of makes EU a polished and better marketed version of medieval Europe.

  4. Don says:

    On use of the term ‘Middle East’ I agree with the point of really non-existant. When it comes to the EU reluctancy to admit Turkey, another point to consider is Turkey’s location. If you look at Turkey’s neighbors you will see that many are not very friendly to the “West” (the EU, US, etc) and so long as Turkey is outside the EU, it is Turkey’s problem in dealing with these countries; once an EU member, these problems become the problem of the entire EU to deal with. I feel this plays an important role in EU’s reluctance as well as the christian-muslim dispute, but maybe not a much!

  5. Ibby Josef says:

    The answer here is simple, the EU should create a point system where by only the qualified can move freely within the EU there could also be a cap introduced so that no country can have a mass influx of people, a good example here is that the UK was only expecting 13,000 polish people to immigrate the real amount was 500,000.

    By doing the above the EU and Turkey have a win win situation.

  6. Eli Bubb says:

    Turkey should now be granted full membership of EU. Enough is enough.

  7. Kemal says:

    The problem with Turkey is not just about economy but also politics and culture. There are %4-5 europen mind people or families in Turkey. Only that much people can only live and share the ideas of Europe. Rest of the population can have the economic power or good life style but they are still arabic mixed culture people. I honestly only see my mother side relatives looks like europen mind and some of them already settled in France,U.S. I see the fear in their eyes when they come to turkey. This is because our people are angry,not polite and look the whole life in one view. If someone ask me to explain Turkey with words; they are: Chaos, ironic, anarchist, %70 have the potention of being hard muslims, ironically they have no idea what quran says “in arabic language” and this is the stupid side of this. i went to another countries such as asia countries or europe, but i fear from my people and i would feel the same in the middle east i guess. If anyone says the opposite of my ideas, this is because they have the same world view of other people. Chaos,chaos and no inteligent,no esthatitcs, parents always angry to childeren. They act them like they are always wrong and stupid and the result is as expected. Turkey like to obey and follow the power. education economy and goods are everwhere but minds same as always. No honour no honesty, and not enough nice people to heal the country. We are not sick we are the disease. Be careful europe ! I would say sadly in the past for this words but today… Nah. They are all the truths

  8. Alex says:

    Turkey is not in Europe neither in Middle East. Turkey is a perfect buffer between Europe and Middle East. Just imagine that Turkey didn’t exist, and 3.5 million refugees landed straight into Greece, Bulgaria, Romania. Turkey is a border police of Europe. Let’s hope Turkey will not change sides… Then it will be too late.

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