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Why both Turkey and the EU want to avoid a train crash

A child and two women holding Turkey and EU balloons. Photo: World Bank
A child and two women holding Turkey and EU balloons. Photo: World Bank

There are a number of good reasons why no Turkish government would see it as in its interest to walk away from the negotiating table. One reason is obvious: an end to the process would be read, in Turkey and in the world, as a failure. If there is no reason to admit defeat, why do so? Turkey did not leave the Council of Europe in the 1990s, when it was under heavy criticism for massive human rights violations. It did not end its status as an associate of the European Union at a time of massive criticism and tensions with Greece. Why should it now walk away from a process that has enhanced its stature in its own neighbourhood and in the world?

The second reason is economic. The accession process, beginning with Turkey's candidacy in 1999, has coincided with a period of unprecedented economic growth. Between 2002 and 2008, the country's GDP grew at an average rate of roughly 6 percent per year. Between 2002 and 2006, per capita GDP doubled, from USD 3,400 to USD 7,365 (EUR 2,417 to EUR 5,236). In 2009, it is estimated at USD 8,248 (EUR 5,863) (all World Bank data). Although Turkey has been trading with the EU for decades, and has been a member of the Customs Union since December 1995, it is only in recent years that it has begun to attract substantial foreign direct investment (FDI). FDI – more than two thirds of it originating from the EU – skyrocketed from less than USD 1 billion in 2000 to USD 20 billion in 2007 (Foreign Policy Centre in 2008). FDI was USD 8 billion even during the global economic crisis in 2009.

While it is always hard to quantify the correlation between the EU accession process and sustained economic growth – the recent boom would not have happened without a series of economic reforms launched in 2001 and sustained since – the link between the two is undeniable. It is no coincidence that all other candidate countries, from Poland to Bulgaria, experienced a surge in GDP and FDI after being placed on the track to membership.

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Levent financial district in Istanbul. Photo: Wikipedia Commons/Geia sou Levendi

The EU process has measurably reduced uncertainty among investors. As economist Mehmet Ugur explained in a paper for the Foreign Policy Centre, "IMF and EU conditionality, the explicit manner in which the AKP government has committed to 'own' their prescriptions, and the prospect for starting EU accession negotiations by 2005 have all combined to create a unique environment for economic recovery and performance since 2002." There is also the concrete issue of Turkey's access to capital and the costs of borrowing. Ugur notes that "All major international organisations (the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD, etc.), as well as major international banks and rating agencies welcomed the EU accession process as an anchor for stability and sustained economic growth in Turkey." As fellow economist Refik Erzan observed in 2007, the government's adherence to the accession track has been perceived as a guarantee by the home and international business communities. Furthermore, thanks largely to the impact of the EU process,

"Turkey has outperformed the Emerging Market Bond Index since 2003 despite its major current account deficit. It has enjoyed a considerably lower spread than that for Brazil until very recently. This is generally interpreted as the EU bonus."[1]

Refik Erzan

An unprecedented period of economic growth, a twenty billion dollar surge in FDI, significantly improved access to capital markets… Political factors aside, for Turkey to put all this at stake by walking away from the negotiations would be foolish – and thus very unlikely.

Some argue that recent growth – in 2010 Turkey's GDP is estimated to grow by 8 percent, the fastest in Europe – shows that Turkey "no longer needs the EU." This is grandstanding. Turkey is still one of the poorest countries in Europe (and the poorest member of the OECD in per capita terms). Most importantly, it has had periods of high growth before (in the 1950s, in the 1960s, and in the mid 1980s), only to see its efforts to catch up with Europe brought to a halt by instability. The pattern of boom-bust development since World War II is too recent for a suspension in accession talks not to unnerve serious investors. Last month a country survey in The Economist celebrated Turkey's transformation. Yet an October 2002 Economist survey of Greece, entitled "Prometheus Unbound", was similarly optimistic. In hard times a credible anchor is welcome – and the anchor of an EU accession process comes at little cost.

Imagining a scenario whereby the opponents of Turkish accession inside the EU succeed in suspending the negotiations is just as difficult – not only because it is not in their interest, but also because it is not in their power. Let us assume a "worst case" scenario: the Cyprus talks break down completely; Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom begins to dominate the debate on enlargement in the Netherlands; Turkey-sceptical governments in France, Germany and Austria continue to govern; and Greece (re)joins the anti-Turkey camp in a show of solidarity with Cyprus. Could the opponents of Turkish membership join forces to stop the accession talks?

Geert Wilders. Photo:

According to the EU's Lisbon Treaty (Protocol 36, Art. 3), the decision to suspend negotiations requires the backing of a qualified majority of the Union's member states. Given the current distribution of voting power in the EU Council, the combined votes of Germany, France, Greece, Cyprus, the Netherlands and Austria – 97 in total – would fall far short of the 255 needed to bring the negotiating process to a close. Even if many other countries were to join the group, it would still not form a qualified majority.

In line with the Treaty's transitional provisions, the system described above is set to expire in October 2014. As of that date, the sceptics will require a majority of at least 55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the Union's population to suspend Turkey's accession process, rendering such a possibility as unlikely as before (Lisbon Treaty, Art. 16). As Marc Pierini, head of the EU Delegation to Turkey, observed during a 2010 conference of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung in Turkey, "The vast majority of EU member states do not want these negotiations to stop. It is as simple as that."

It would take more than a political setback on the Cyprus issue – or even the rise of another European leader opposed to Turkish accession – to change this. Even for the most hard-line politicians in Cyprus, bringing the Turkish accession process to an end would be counterproductive. After all, the process constitutes Nicosia's only tangible source of leverage over Ankara.

The negotiations might last for a very long time. Turkey will face many more obstacles. Once the talks are concluded, the accession treaty will not enter into force until and unless it is ratified by all member states (Lisbon Treaty, Art. 49). Whether this final hurdle will then be overcome remains an open question. Until then, however, no single member state – or even several states – can throw Turkey under the train.

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