EU, European Economic Area and Turkey

EU, European Economic Area and Turkey

Aydin Baris Yildirim
EU membership for Turkey is a long-lost dream. We can argue about it, we can talk about it, but the reality is that in the near future, it is not happening. This reality was corroborated by newly elected EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker when he bluntly said there would be no accession during his term – whatsoever.

Now, here is a question no one is asking; why are we obsessed with entering the EU, when the accession prospects are at all-time low with the public, and why (similarly) the EU is still refusing to continue to talks even though the prospects of Turkey acceding to the EU are at an all-time low as well?

No logical explanation provides an answer. Even further, there is a middle way that may solve all of our (and Europe’s) problems with regards to Turkish entry; the European Economic Area (EEA). Somehow, no one is talking about it, arguing about it or considering it.

EEA membership would be an ideal solution to the Turkish question by satisfying Turkey and the EU and benefiting the greater region since Turkey would have all the benefits of being integrated into Europe except for being a full member of the EU. Let’s see how that would actually happen:

First, both Turkey and the EU would benefit greatly in net economic terms with Turkish membership in the EEA. Since Turkey is integrated into European common market thanks to the 1995 Customs Union, by adopting the EEA agreement, we would not have to move the mountains in economic terms of “catching up with the EU,” but instead engage in even freer trade with our biggest partner. Similarly, the EU would be able to engage in trade and services with Turkey even more freely, without tariff rates or quotas, which has continuously been a “reason to accept Turkey into the EU” anyways. Turkey is among the top five trade partners of the EU, racking up some $150 billion every year in exports and imports. With EEA membership, it would be easier for both of us to sell and buy from each other, increasing value added trade that benefits both of us in these much needed times.

Second, Turkey would gain in social and political terms greatly from such membership. We would be able to travel to EEA nations (including the whole of the EU) without visa requirements, we would be able to join social programs – such as the Erasmus program – without visa concerns, benefit from the labor market in Europe and be subjected to European standards in our legal and social provisions. This way, we will have to increase our standards to (hopefully) EU levels.

Third, the EU would also benefit from Turkish accession without the standard problematique associated with Turkish accession because Turkey will not have a seat at the European Parliament or the council. One of the most contentious issues in Europe today is the fact that a large Turkey would be able to sway European legislation, but an EEA membership would not allow that. Instead, a more integrated Turkey would be the ally the EU needs in the near-east as its geostrategic partner. Furthermore, since Article 20 of the EEA agreement (dealing with free movement of persons) and its provisions are subject to member agreement, we could easily draft an annex that would allow Turkish people access to Europe while limiting their residency – a common fear among the EU.

In short, Turkish membership in the EEA would provide net gains for everyone while circumventing all the problems associated with accession to the EU – namely mass migration, majority seating at the EU Parliament and the council. Instead, we would be an integrated economic partner, something that would satisfy Turkey with visa-free travel and social programs, while increasing trade prospects for everyone.

This reality begs the question; why are Turkey and the EU so stubborn about continuing the plagued accession route, knowing that it will probably not end well for either of us but with more contempt and resentment? Do we, after all, have a psychological complex? It seems to be the only logical explanation.

Aydin Baris Yildirim is a PhD researcher at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.