ISTANBUL – Within a few weeks, when the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice approaches, they will be shipped into Turkish harbours again: thousands of cows and sheep. Production in Turkey isn’t enough to meet the high demand during the Feast of Sacrifice. For those few weeks, Turkey gets closer to Europe, which demands that import restrictions that Turkey has for cattle be abolished.
The temporary easing of import restrictions on meat have nothing to do with demands of the European Union. That’s why they will most probably be re-imposed again some time after the Feast. Professor Erol Cakmak of TED University in the Turkish capital Ankara, an expert on Turkey’s agricultural policy, understands that perfectly: ‘The agricultural chapter in the accession talks between Turkey and the EU hasn’t been opened yet because of the disagreement about Cyprus. Nobody can say when the Cyprusissue will be solved, so it’s also unclear when the agricultural chapter will be opened. So why should Turkey now harmonize its policy with the EU, while its policy works for the domestic market?’
Two years ago, Turkey levied a 135% tax on imported cattle. That was reduced to 40% and is by now down to 30%. Bovine animals are mainly imported from SouthAmerica and countries close to Turkey, like Bulgaria. Sheep are mainly shipped in from Australia and NewZealand. The trade is intended to meet demand and to keep meat prices at reasonable levels.
They are much higher than the average European price: last year more than €12.50 per kilo for beef, almost €26 for a kilo of lamb. During the previous Feast of Sacrifice, last November, Turks used to joke about the high meat prices: ‘This year, we won’t slaughter animals but tomatoes’.
Turkey’s economy is growing, despite the worldwide crisis, and in agriculture too things are going well, says professor Cakmak: ‘It’s even going so well that the sector is attracting private investors, including from abroad. That didn’t exist before, but nowadays it can make good profits.’
Also in the animal breeding sector foreign investors are no longer an exception. Especially in the West and the South of the country, for example, Argentinean companies are moving in seeking to profit from the 72 million Turkish meat eaters. ‘They settle here despite the insecurities that come with the Turkish policies’, says Professor Cakmak. ‘Meat will be imported for as long as the domestic market can’t meet the demand, nothing more. Turkey tries to manage the prices as much as possible. The idea is that the domestic prices shouldn’t be influenced too much by the prices on the international market.’
And that is against EU policy, which has tried to have the prices set as much as possible by market mechanisms. ‘Yes, in that respect, Turkey is drifting away from Europe’, says Cakmak. ‘But Turkey has that freedom. Don’t forget, the country went through a deep economic crisis more than ten years ago and recovered from that with help from the World Bank and by all sorts of reforms, including in agriculture.’ Since 2009 the interference of the World Bank is over and Turkey maps out its own plan. That includes agricultural subsidies: as much as 75% to 80% of production receives tariff support, a percentage that is contrarily decreasing in the EU.
No problem, says Cakmak: ‘It is not so difficult to adjust the agricultural policy when the time is right’, referring to a realistic prospect on EU accession, including an accession date. ‘The EU tends to solve these things with new members. Just like the EU did with earlier new members whose agricultural policy was very different from the EU’s, like Poland and Romania. So I’m confident the same can be done with Turkey.’
He remarks how Turkey has over the last year been seen as a model country, ever since the start of the Arab Spring. What has that to do with agriculture policies? ‘Not too much, you would say’, he laughs. ‘But really, it’s amazing how many requests I get to speak about Turkey’s agricultural policy. I travel a lot to NorthAfrica and the Middle East. Turkey matters in the region, apparently they want to know how Turkey outlines its policies, including on agriculture.’
And that is: on its own. Just like the foreign policy of the country, which doesn’t spinelessly bow to EU wishes or the interests of its good friend the United States. Cakmak points out that it’s also no sure bet to adjust to the EU when it comes to agriculture. He smiles and says: ‘Do you know how unstable European agricultural policy is? How can Turkey adjust to rules that are being changed constantly? That’s like aiming at a moving target.’