Winning back confidence in EU-Turkey relations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Growing scepticism about the EU is spreading through Turkish society, writes Zeynep Gögü?, publisher of EURACTIV Turkey in the following commentary.

“Why would a poor village in Turkey’s northern Black Sea region turn down a €350,000 grant from the European Union to build a much-needed sewage facility? Distrust of the EU’s motives in providing the funds might seem an unlikely reason. But this was the justification given earlier this month by opponents of the project. Some hard-line Turkish nationalists even applauded the move as an “honourable” act of patriotism. 

The backlash against EU funds in the village of ?im?irli could be seen as a symbol of the growing skepticism about the EU that is spreading through Turkish society. According to the 2007 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund, when asked how likely it is that Turkey will join the European Union, 56% of Europeans felt it likely that Turkey will join, compared with only 26% of Turkish respondents. What’s more, according to the same survey, “for the first time, a majority of the Turkish respondents (54%) also viewed EU leadership in the world as undesirable, an increase of seven percentage points since 2006.” 

The EU has not yet lost a majority of the Turkish people. In the European Commission’s Eurobarometer 67 poll of spring 2007, 52% of respondents still thought membership of the EU would be a “good thing”. But that was down from 54% in autumn 2006. As Margot Wallström, the European Commission’s Vice President in charge of Institutional Relations and Communication, pointed out during a visit to Turkey last summer, the EU needs to show a tremendous effort to prove the advantages of EU membership, backing this with sufficient budgetary resources. 

While the Commission is increasing its efforts to change negative perceptions among Turkish public opinion, however, negative statements by a few MEPs are having a contrary effect. And the biggest blows to Turkish feelings are coming from French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who keeps repeating that Turkey cannot be an EU member because it is not located in the same geographical region as the European Union. 

The fallacy of Sarkozy’s argument was pointedly underlined by Turkish President Abdullah Gül this month, when he gave visiting French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner a map and asked him “Which is closer to you? Turkey or Cyprus?” But there are many factors causing Turkish business leaders to doubt where things are heading. For most Turkish companies, accession to the EU is perceived as a distant dream. 

The new Turkish government has yet to make a clear declaration about its position on EU membership, and few firms have any kind of road map for taking advantage of EU funds. Organisations representing the cream of the Turkish business world, such as the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association (TUSIAD), feel isolated in their efforts to back Turkey’s EU bid. 

And yet, life goes on as usual in the Ankara bureaucracy and at the European Commission. If the support for Turkey’s EU membership bid is not to dwindle to unsustainably low levels, both sides need to make a serious effort to improve their management of public opinion. One place where Turkey needs to start is in relation to the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to publicly denigrate Turkishness or the Turkish state. 

Despite the promises of Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, Ankara keeps delaying annulment or amendment of the article for reasons of political expediency. The latest outburst of Kurdish terrorism in Turkey’s southeastern border region has inevitably raised new obstacles. But they should not stand in the way of addressing a problem that, in the words of Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, “is wrapping around us like a Levis 501”. Until Article 301 is changed, perceptions of Turkey in EU countries will continue to suffer. 

On the positive side, foreign capital inflows are steadily rising. According to a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Turkey has crossed the 20 billion dollar mark in foreign direct investment last year, up from 9.8 billion dollars in 2005, putting Turkey among the top seven countries in the world for FDI inflows in the last ten years. That positive development is a reflection of mainstream economic activities around the world. 

But Turkey could do even better if it had a firm prospect of EU accession. For the moment, ironically, pro-Turkey groups in the European Union seem to be making more efforts in support of Turkey than are the Turks themselves. A recently published letter of support signed by fifty European intellectuals is a good example of this. 

So where should the counter-offensive in favour of Turkey’s EU membership start? A significant body of anti-EU feeling is found in Turkey among left-wing nationalists, who fail to see the EU’s social advantages. These could well be a positive target for new efforts to win back support for the EU project. Though Europe’s social paradigm has taken some knocks, it is clear that the EU still symbolizes social justice amid the damaging waves of globalisation. Europe may need a big country like Turkey in order to become a big world power. But Turkey also needs the EU as it grapples with the forces of global competition. 

If increased efforts on both the EU side and in Turkey succeed in countering current mutual negative perceptions, the result could be a positive impact on trade volumes and economic relations. That, in turn, would have spin-off effects in terms of improved social welfare in Turkey, potentially creating a virtuous circle in relation to attitudes to the EU. Though time is running out, it is not too late to make a new start, as the inhabitants of ?im?irli seem to have realised. Only a few days after turning down the EU grant for their sewage system, they decided to re-submit their application for EU funds.” 

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