The EU as Turkey’s dietician

I’d like to predict some news, possibly for the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014. By that time, Turkey will have fulfilled all requirements necessary to become an EU member – at least that’s what Egemen Bagis, Minister for EU Affairs, said last night at a dinner with journalists, which I attended. But then, Turkey could also reach its goal without actually becoming a member. Thank you, Turkey might say, for keeping us on track towards meeting EU standards, but now we are really better off on our own.

No, of course Bagis didn’t say anything like that literally. But between the lines it is suddenly pretty obvious to me. He stressed several times that for Turkey the road towards EU membership is more important than the actual goal. And when I asked what Turkey would actually gain from EU membership, he said you could see the EU as Turkey’s dietician: ‘It is nice to sit in front of the TV having ice cream, but if you know it’s better for you to be running on a treadmill, its good if somebody keeps reminding you and encouraging you to exercise.’ Think a bit further along that line: if you have finally changed your life style, are in shape and at a healthy weight, would you still use your dietician? Or would it cost more than it’s worth?

It’s remarkable that Bagis didn’t point out any positive thing about actually being an EU member. And can you blame him? Turkey has total freedom now in its policy on foreign affairs. It has good ties with the EU (yes, still!), it can have ties with countries that the EU could never be so close to (Syria, Iran), it can lift visa restrictions with any country it likes in order to boost Turkey’s economy without needing anyone’s permission.

And that sure adds grist to Turkey’s mill. First, Turkey plays an independent and increasingly important role on the international diplomatic stage. There will be nothing left of that if they become an EU member. The open borders with for example Syria and Lebanon would actually be considered a problem, and visa restrictions with those countries might even have to be re-introduced. Turkey would all of a sudden be part of a block that in the end doesn’t play a role of any importance on the world stage. They would improve their position by Turkey joining them, but that would be Europe’s gain, and Turkey’s loss.

Turkey’s economy is recovering from the global economic crisis very quickly and is already growing again at around ten percent. The EU economies are struggling to even grow at all. There is a fear among Europeans that Turks might flood Europe once there is free movement of persons and no restrictions on working in any European country, but could it actually be Turkey has more to fear? The growth and future potential of Turkey’s economy has been compared to that of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and Turkey is so close to Europe, or if you like, a part of it, that it’s not inconceivable that Europeans one day will flood Turkey like a tsunami in search of greater prosperity. Does Turkey need all those workers? No: Turkey’s population is huge and young (72 million, average age 27), so Turkey can very well make it on its own.

I can only imagine the self confidence Turkey must feel if one day they say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’ to EU membership. But it will not happen at the end of 2013 or beginning of 2014. Bagis said rather confidently that at that time Turkey will be ready, but to me he seemed not to take Turkey’s problems very seriously. His answers to relevant questions regarding the path towards the EU were not answered in a satisfying way. Minority rights? Journalists in jail? The very slow, if any, progress in solving the Kurdish question? All Bagis did was ask counter questions, make a joke, or point out that it was all so much worse ten to thirty years ago. If only once he had shown that he actually really cared about groups and individuals that face serious problems due to a lack of democracy, and how damaging it is for Turkey.

Then again, by reacting this way, he also showed very clearly that Turkey does indeed need a ‘dietician’. The changes in life-style have for sure not sunken in yet. It’s like joking about eating ice cream while lying flat on the couch watching TV, sticking your head in the sand about the fact that when some organs don’t function properly anymore, it undermines the healthy functioning of the whole body.

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