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.