COMMENT: Time for a balanced debate about Turkish EU membership

By bne IntelliNews October 8, 2008

Markus Jaeger of Deutsche Bank Research -

European integration has always been an elite project which, more often than not, has suffered setbacks precisely when it sought public support. The nature of representative democracy is such that elected officials take decisions on behalf of the electorate. Nonetheless, this does not (and should not) absolve the political elites of their responsibility to conduct a reasoned and balanced public debate about the potential costs and benefits of the perhaps most controversial item on the EU agenda: Turkish EU membership. Specifically, it is high time to subject the arguments most commonly deployed against Turkish EU membership to thorough scrutiny.

First, there is the geographic argument: most of Turkey is located in Asia; therefore, Turkey cannot become an EU member. This is by far the weakest of the arguments against Turkish membership. Europe as a geographic reality is an arbitrary construct. Would the anti-membership lobby really object were Turkey populated by Christians of "European" descent rather than Muslims of "non-European" descent? Surely, Europe is and aspires to be much more than a geographic concept. Can a Europe whose aspiration is to foster economic integration and close political co-operation among like-minded liberal democracies really exclude a country with the same aspirations on the grounds that the larger part of its territory is not located in the geographic construct called Europe?

The geographic argument is closely intertwined with a cultural argument: Turkey is a Muslim country lacking the Christian and/or Enlightenment traditions necessary to sustain a liberal democratic polity and a successful economy. This argument not only smacks of a neo-colonial attitude but it also flies in the face of modernisation theory. Turkey is the most secular state in Europe (with the possible exception of France) and, since the emergence of the Young Turks a century ago, has been committed to modernisation and, at least since Ataturk, to secularism. Non-European societies have built successful democracies and economies. Turkey for one is in the process of doing exactly that. Would it therefore not seem irresponsible to deny Turkey EU membership on the grounds of religion?

The demographic argument goes something like this: Turkey will be the EU's most populous country and will upset the EU's internal political balance. Turkey's population will exceed that of Germany, currently the EU's most populous country, as early as 2015, according to the UN. In 2025, the EU-27 will have a population of almost 500 m versus Turkey's 90 m. In 2050, when Turkish population growth will fall to zero, the respective figures will be 470 m versus 100 m. Turkey's population share of the EU total would then almost exactly equal Germany's current 17% share. If a far wealthier Germany is not regarded as dominating the EU today, why should there be reason to be concerned about a demographically equal, but economically far less powerful Turkey in 2050?

Fourth, the political-institutional argument comes in several versions, the most common of which perhaps is: Turkish membership would make EU governance even more unwieldy. Often this is combined with the concern that Turkey, as the quintessential "modern state", might be less prepared to accept the consensus-oriented EU culture. (The same argument has been used in relation to the recent "joiners".) It is undoubtedly true that the larger the number of countries, the more difficult it will be to find consensus. But is this really a good enough reason to keep Turkey out of the EU? Will adding one additional member make a big difference? If so, how can the EU afford to admit Croatia but not Turkey? Should the prospect of Turkish EU membership not instead be regarded as an incentive to push forward with much-needed institutional reforms?

The most common economic argument against Turkish membership is the following: Turkey is too poor to join the EU. According to World Bank data, per capita income is higher in Turkey than in Bulgaria and Romania, while Romania's agricultural sector is even larger than Turkey's as a share of GDP. On the other hand, Turkey has by far the largest share of its workforce deployed in agriculture (25% versus Poland's 15%). Add to this the fact that Turkey's economy is larger in terms of GDP and population and it is clear that an unreformed EU agricultural policy could come under strain following Turkish accession. (The same applies to EU financial policies more generally.) Should this not provide the EU with an incentive to reform what is in obvious need of reform? Will Turkey not have a much more modern and developed economy by the time it joins, making integration much more manageable?

Finally, there is the security argument: Turkish EU membership would directly expose the EU to a geo-politically volatile part of the world. Turkey shares borders with countries such as Georgia, Iraq and Syria. (Some add that membership would also import into the EU a territorial conflict over Cyprus; but this conflict would presumably have to be solved before Turkey becomes a member.) This argument overlooks that Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. Turkey therefore already benefits from a security guarantee under NATO's article 5, which most EU members are already a party to by virtue of NATO membership. So what additional security commitments or geo-political risks would Turkish EU membership create for the EU? And in terms of the conflict with the PKK, is this conflict all that different from similar conflicts in some of the current EU member states?

The most commonly deployed prima facie arguments against Turkish EU membership look pretty weak. This is not to say that Turkish EU accession will not bring challenges. But so did the admission of the Eastern European countries. The big difference is that for the European elites, and to a lesser extent the European public, the case for admitting the former Eastern bloc countries was equivalent to a dogma. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines "dogma" as a "point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds". This is not to say of course that there were no very good reasons for eastward enlargement (there were), but the wisdom of enlargement was taken for granted. The debate about Turkish EU membership is often similarly riddled with dogmas, but in this case with dogmas opposing membership. It is high time to rid the debate of dogma and conduct a reasoned debate about the costs and benefits of Turkish EU accession.

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