Turkey and EU ties on 70th year of Europe Day 

Turkey and EU ties on 70th year of Europe Day 

Today, the European Union is set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration which created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) with the participation of France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. 

After a decades-old journey, the coal and steel community has turned into what we call the European Union, representing 27 European nations and making one of the biggest global economies. 

On this very special day, it’s up to the European nations, politicians, academics and experts to carry out substantial analysis on the performance of the 70 years of the union. This column would try to look into how the EU is perceived in Turkey, a candidate country since 1999 with vain hopes for full membership in the near future. 

If one word would suffice to summarize the EU’s influence on Turkey’s political and economic development processes in the last three decades that would be its “transformative power.” In line with the Ankara Agreement of 1963, the customs union between Turkey and the EU entered into force in 1996, launching a new era for the Turkish economy with all its public and private stakeholders.  

Thanks to the customs union which brought about a high-level integration between the two sides, Turkey has become the EU’s sixth main trading partner globally with the value of bilateral trade in goods currently amounting to 138 billion euros, observing a fourfold increase since 1996. 

Likewise, the EU is the most important trading partner for Turkey, representing around 40 percent of Turkey’s global trade. Thousands of European companies operate in Turkey, providing around three-quarters of the foreign direct investment in the country. The customs union did not only increase the volume of industrial production but also augmented its quality and competitiveness, helping the Turkish economy to the era of globalization. 

Starting from the mid-1990s, Turkey had proven that it has the capacity to reform its economy. The first 10 years of the 21st century have marked Turkey as an emerging economic power as a result of continued structural reforms to strengthen its banking and financial institutions. This economic success cannot be explained without a good mention of the impacts of the customs union. 

A similar process had also been observed on the political front. Its declaration as a candidate country in December 1999 had commenced a new era for Turkey with enhanced confidence to join the EU as a first overwhelmingly Muslim nation. In a bid to harmonize its acquis with the EU’s, Turkish governments had amended the constitution, changed various key laws, and adopted regulations before Brussels would agree to launch formal talks for the accession of Turkey in 2005. As a matter of fact, the reforms continued after the start of accession talks, and around one-third of negotiation chapters could be opened so far.  

This period has proven Turkey’s capacity and willingness to reform until it was interrupted by the rise of right-wing politics in Europe. Angela Merkel’s election in Germany and Nicholas Sarkozy’s in France changed the course as they did not hesitate to sanction Turkey by preventing the opening of many chapters over Cyprus. That was a clear signal to Turkey that the Franco-German alliance will use the Cypriot problem in an effort to block the Turkish accession process, which is still the case. 

Since then, the EU has lost its leverage on Turkey and the nature of the relationship has evolved in the most drastic way. Differently from the early years of the Turkish candidacy, the parties have failed to overcome problems and manage the strain in ties due to the lack of mutual confidence and common interests. 

That eventually led to an ice age in Turkey’s relationships with both the EU and many prominent European nations. It was in this recent period where a decline in democratic principles and norms were observed in Turkey, reversing its image 180 degrees in less than a decade.   

It’s true that Turkey has been a non-observant candidate country. But it’s also true that the EU has politicized the Turkish accession process since the beginning of the negotiations due to various issues, the Cyprus question being atop of them. Today’s projections on the future of Turkey-EU journey are not that promising, but as history shows, their bilateral relations tend to worsen when they stop trying to influence each other and cooperate. Both Turkish and European leaders should realize this very unique aspect of their relationship.