The EU’s hot air balloon and Turkey

The EU’s hot air balloon and Turkey

When it comes to global politics, we all know that the European Union (EU) is in a sorry state. One of its three most powerful members is leaving, its inbred establishment is besieged, its Eastern edges are slipping into despotism. It lacks a cohesive foreign policy framework: A 2016 Global Strategy to make the EU a global actor has yet to be implemented. Why? It’s as Seneca said: “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Without political leadership, even the best of plans is useless.

Yet when it comes to Eastern Europe (broadly defined, including Israel and Turkey), the EU mattered immensely, at least in the past two decades. In 1996, there were three industrial countries in our neighborhood. Now, there are five thanks to the EU.

In 1997, there were three industrial countries in the southern flank of Europe: Israel, Turkey and Poland. Now, they are five. Hungary and Romania have joined the list, and the share of Poland in the total manufacturing exports has increased considerably. Turkey, Hungary and Romania have also increased their exports, all due to the EU enlargement process.

Don’t think of the enlargement process as necessarily about having to join the Union. If it does lead to membership, of course, so much the better. But enlargement was about Europe’s capacity to lead, its magnetism, its universal vision for a peaceful future. Not anymore.

Just look at the examples. Neither Romania nor Hungary could be considered significant industrial countries in 1997. They are now. And Poland, which could be compared to Turkey back in 1997, has become the major industrial country of our region. Why? Because EU membership has significantly lowered the cost of reform or transformation in those three.

Yet this transformation machine is not working anymore. It all reminds me of the joke of the hot air balloonist. Wonder why?

A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he is lost. He reduces height and spots a man down below. He lowers the balloon further and shouts, “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised my friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The man below says, “Yes. You are in a hot air balloon, hovering approximately 30 feet above this field. You are between 40 and 41 degrees N. latitude, and between 58 and 59 degrees W. longitude.”

“You must be an engineer” says the balloonist.

“I am,” replies the man. “How did you know?”

“Well,” says the balloonist, “everything you have told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost.”

The man below says “You must be a manager.”

“I am,” replies the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” says the man, “you don’t know where you are, or where you are going to. You have made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the exact same position you were in before we met, but now, it is somehow my fault.”

The EU is governing the most modern and progressive places on earth, which makes its confusion all the more upsetting. We can only hope that it snaps out of its rut and begins to lead once again. If it does, the first thing it needs to do with regards to Turkey is to de-politicize the Customs Union modernization process, and get it done.

Güven Sak,