By Cyriacus Njukang*
Turkey has been a candidate country to join the European Union since 2005. What was once an exciting and promising new chapter in the country’s relations with the rest of Europe has since entailed more disappointment, an ever-growing lack of confidence and bumps in the road – more than anyone could have thought 12 years ago.
Problems and crises at the regional and national levels visibly strained relations between Turkey and certain European countries and brought the accession process to a halt. It goes without saying that the Turkey-EU relations certainly need a reset. But this cannot happen unless both sides agree to engage each other fairly, respectfully and as equal partners
The Syrian crisis could be perceived as a source of chaos that troubles and burdens Turkey in many ways, creating an unprecedented disarray the country has not witnessed before. Turkey alone hosts more than 3.5 million refugees of whom about 3 million are Syrian.
Turkey’s national security and economy are being put at stake by the Syrian crisis. Turkey’s active foreign policy is the main reason behind the country’s troubles. Yet people underestimate the strategic rationale behind Turkey’s Syria policy. In reality, the Syrian civil war has opened the gate for Turkey to achieve some of its short term goals. Most importantly, it has demonstrated that the EU needs Turkey.
It also highlighted its intention to increase its influence in the area of international security and possibly compete with the United States. However, the EU may not want Turkey to join its club.
For several years, Turkey’s foreign relations have had much in common with Europe’s foreign policies. Today Europe may need an alliance with Turkey more than ever, and it has benefitted greatly from having Turkey on its side. In reality, the Syrian civil war has opened the gate for Turkey to achieve some of its short term goals. Most importantly, it has demonstrated that the EU needs Turkey.
Five years into the Syrian crisis and Turkey’s plans have not been achieved; Bashar Al-Assad is still in power. However, it is true to say that neither the US nor the EU is able to achieve any operational success in Syria without Turkey’s cooperation.
Starting from 2003, when Europe and Turkey independently disagreed with the US’ invasion of Iraq, Turkey’s foreign policy has been similar close to that of Europe. This is meant to serve mutual interests. Indeed, Turkey has always looked to be acknowledged as an active geopolitical power. Europe would be the most suitable ally – better than the United States – in granting this interest.
Istanbul is a great European city that lies at the economic and cultural heart of Turkey. The country is an invaluable bridge between Europe and Asia. As a member, it would re-invigorate Europe’s relations with fast evolving regions like the energy rich Caucasus and Central Asia, to the new Middle East emerging from the Arab Spring. Turkey’s unique geo-strategic position, plus the strength of NATO’s second-largest army would greatly add to European security.
The Turkish economy is thriving. Its GDP growth average for 2014 was around 3.5% and it weathered the global financial downturn much better than most EU nations. Its public finances are the envy of Southern Europe. Per-capital income has increased six-fold and the average Turk is now better off than his or her Romanian and Bulgarian counterparts in the EU. Only New York, London and Moscow have more resident billionaires than Istanbul. Bringing in such a dynamo would inject new life into the EU economy, as well as adding 75 million consumers to the single market.
Turkey to join would provide a fresh influx of workers for Europe. The country has a young and increasingly well-educated population and some argue the ageing EU cannot afford to block this demographic from its workforce. But at a time when many governments are under increasing pressure to reduce high levels of immigration, allowing millions more workers to cross their borders is not expected to be high on their agenda.
With the UK decision to leave the EU, it is a chance to reconsider Turkey as one of its state members, especially as it is clear that the EU without Turkey will have limited influence. Simply, the EU needs Turkey in order to restore its position and weight over the world once again.
Drawing from the complex history of Turkey relationship with Europe, the trajectory of Turkey’s European future is at once predictable and highly uncertain. What can be safely predicted is that this close and complex relationship will last in future, in both its collaborative and conflictual elements. Much like the centuries-long history between the two was marked by cyclical moments of cooperation and conflict, the depth of current economic, political, security, societal and cultural ties is such that it is difficult to imagine a clean break in Turkey’s relationship with the EU. The very identities of Turkey and Europe are inextricably tied to one another and ‘when your identity crisis has lasted for some 200 years it is no longer a crisis. It is your identity. At the same time, the future trajectory of the EU-Turkey relationship remains highly uncertain. But to my opinion both Turkey and EU need each other.
*Cyriacus Njukang is a Cameroonian by nationality and currently a student in Istanbul Aydin University