Why the Trexit debate?
There have been many articles about “Trexit” in the Turkish media since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan raised the possibility of a referendum on Ankara’s EU membership bid. The term, of course, is derived from “Brexit,” and implies that Turks will vote their way out of the EU, just as the British did.
However, there are two important complications here. First, Turkey’s constitution doesn’t allow referendums on issues other than constitutional amendments, so exiting accession talks via a referendum might turn out to be tricky.
Secondly, Turkey is not yet a member of the European Union, so the comparison to Britain doesn’t really work. You really have to try the soup before declaring you don’t like it. What exactly would the Turks vote for in such a referendum? Leaving the Customs Union? Cutting Turkey’s access to its largest export market? I don’t think so.
Take the Polish case. Poland’s accession process started in 1998 and the country became part of the EU in 2004. In 1990, Poland and Turkey’s GDPs per capita was 26 percent and 42 percent of South Korea’s GDP per capita, respectively. Turkey was in a better shape compared to Poland. In 2015, however, Poland and Turkey’s GDPs per capita as a percentage of South Korea’s had become 46 percent and 32 percent, respectively. The Poles really did achieve something that Turks could not.
What is that thing? Just look at the World Justice Project’s 2016 Rule of Law Index results. Turkey ranks 99th and Poland ranks 22nd. To me, that is the essence of European transformation. Turkey needs to follow Poland’s example: Import the culture of the rule of law and implement comprehensive justice and administrative reforms.
Don’t let current vocal positions mislead you. No one in Ankara is questioning the importance of the EU for a smoother Turkish transformation. Not seriously anyway. We all know that the EU is the cheapest and shortest way out of the middle income trap. Just take a look at the last 35 years. There are a handful of countries that have managed to escape the middle income trap and move up to high income status. Aside from South Korea, nearly all of them made the transition thanks to the EU. The EU is a proven transformation machine.
Yet the discussions on “Trexit” are real. Why? I think it is anxiety that makes Turkey look for the way out. Anxiety is not necessarily always a bad thing; sometimes it can help you focus on the future. It is certainly better than constantly digging up your past and getting lost in regrets. There is something healthy in being anxious.
When I visit Gulf countries I also feel anxiety in the air. The decline in oil prices has taken its toll there and been accepted as a fact of life. Now they are trying to ensure they don’t miss the technological revolution. I see anxiety among our European partners too. They are not sure what to make of President-elect Donald Trump, especially with the Russian bear clawing at the door.
But if you ask me, recent Turkish anxiety is about not being able to prevent another “Sykes-Picot arrangement.” Ankara holds a perceived position of powerlessness. The 1916 arrangement between Britain and France took place with the consent of Russia, and to a large extent determined Turkey’s present day borders with Iraq and Syria. That is how Ankara feels now – that something fishy is coming our way and it will happen regardless of us, not with us.
Want to make sense of the “Trexit” debate? Let me tell you what it’s not about. It’s not a personal vendetta of President Erdoğan against Europe, no matter how people may want to see it that way. Erdoğan only channels certain political sentiments in the country, and in this case that sentiment is anxiety. This is an existential question for Turkey. It is about the way Syrian and Iraqi crises are handled.
As for our friends in Europe, they have already started the “who lost Turkey?” debates. I don’t think we are at that stage just yet. But to prevent the current crisis from turning into a full-blown popular Western resentment in Turkey, Europe needs the right diagnoses. When the stakes are so high, mistakes become very costly.