The Sisyphus of Europe?

SisyphusIn Greek mythology, King Sisyphus was sentenced to eternal senseless labor as a punishment for insulting the gods. Until the end of time, he must push an enormous stone up the hill only to have it roll back over and over again. AyÅŸe KasıoÄŸlu, a Turkish professor of political science, has compared Turkey’s efforts to join the EU to Sisyphus’s fruitless labor. Turkey was granted candidate status in December 1999 — 50 years after it first applied for membership — but has managed 12 years later to close only one chapter of the accession negotiations. Despite uphill movement by Ankara, the stone keeps rolling back down again to block Turkey’s entrance to the EU.

Admitting Turkey, a reliable oil supplier and secular democracy, would prove profitable, and perhaps even necessary, for an EU that aspires to remain relevant. The EU cannot, however, overlook Turkey’s failure to meet European standards for freedom of the press, treatment of minorities, and common foreign policy objectives. The process requires the EU to master a balancing act between pressuring Turkey to pursue reforms and preventing the candidate from drifting away from its European dream and into Eastern politics. It also presents Turkey with a challenge to find a way to simultaneously look both East and West, reflecting its geopolitical position and national identity.

Geopolitical and Economic Calculations

The economic and geopolitical benefits of admitting Turkey are rather significant and make the stalling tactics look rather perplexing. With its open-minded diplomatic policy, it could prove a powerful mediator in talks between Western and Middle Eastern countries. If Turkey based its engagement in the Middle East on the same values as the EU does, it could significantly help advance European goals abroad. Particularly in the context of the Arab Spring, a consistent Turkish voice in support of freedom, opportunity, and human rights, would be a credible and powerful influence in the region.

Turkey and the EU need each other economically and politically, said Javier Solana, the former EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, during a recent talk at Brookings, stressing that 75 percent of foreign investment in Turkey comes from Europe, which also buys about 50 percent of Turkey’s exports. Goldman Sachs estimates that by 2050 Turkey will likely have one of the top 10 economies in the world. With Greece, Ireland, and Portugal struggling, admitting Turkey could benefit EU financially and economically. With the constant threat of Russia cutting off oil and gas to Eastern Europe as part of regional power games, the Nabucco gas pipeline through Turkey could help reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian resources, a key development in the region’s energy security.

Much of the economic-based opposition to the accession of Turkey is not actually supported by facts and numbers. In fact, Europe needs Turkey even more than it is willing to admit. Most countries that make up the EU have ageing populations. By 2030, the share of the total population aged 65 years or over in the EU is projected to reach 23.5 percent. This means that the working population will decrease and those employed will need to support more retirees than previous generations. Statistical predictions estimate that whereas in 2008, 100 persons of working age supported 25 individuals aged 65 or over, in 2030 they will need to support 38 persons. Additionally, if the economy grows, the newly created jobs will need to be filled by immigrants or guest workers. The UN estimates that, in order to maintain the size of working-age population, between 2000 and 2050, the EU will need an average of over 4,000 annual migrants per million inhabitants. As Tamar Jacoby has argued, “for Germany, and most all developed countries, attracting educated and skilled foreign workers is a matter of economic survival.” The worries about immigration, which so resonate with European public opinion, are not based on rational calculations, for the numbers support the need for migration in long-term policy planning. They are rooted in culture, religion, and a sense of threatened identity.

An Open-Ended Project?

Part of the issue with Turkey-EU negotiations is also the general sense of uncertainty in the European Union. The economic crisis and eurozone difficulties, the falling behind in global competitiveness, and struggles with embracing increasing multiculturalism have all posed challenges to the EU. Some, like Semih Dündar Idiz, a renowned Turkish journalist, go as far as to say that right now, it is not just the EU-Turkey negotiations that are “open-ended.” Rather, the EU itself is “an open-ended project.” Indeed, Europe is facing an identity crisis as its nations are suddenly forced to accept themselves as immigrant countries amid an influx of Muslim immigrants.

Europe is now faced with a question of what it is and what it stands for. Much of the concern about an increase in Turkish immigration into Europe that would likely follow the accession has to do with the perception of Muslims as “the other.” Anti-immigrant rhetoric often revolves around the “cultural threat” of muezzins calling for prayer in towns only used to hearing Sunday church bells, kids who do not speak the local language in schools, headscarves and burqas co-existing with mini-skirts, street signs in foreign languages, and so on. In short, the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own country as a familiar space changes and diversifies.

By no means a new phenomena, these anxieties have taken on a modern form because of globalization and the increased mobility of people. Europe has traditionally defined its identity in opposition to the Orient, a source of both fascination and fear. European nations fought together in the Crusades and against the advances of the Ottoman Empire, for example during the siege of Vienna in 1683. The question of Turkey is thus about more than drawing geographical lines; it is about defining the EU either as a traditional, relatively non-diverse body or as a dynamic and heterogeneous unit. It is thus a matter of two competing ideas of what the EU is and what it should become in the future.

That Western European nations are struggling to integrate a minority of millions of Muslims is no secret. The rhetoric proclaiming multiculturalism as “dead” or “a failure” has become increasingly popular even in post-colonial nations like Britain that have welcomed immigrants for centuries. Javier Solana’s belief that diversity is the destiny of Europe and a welcome enrichment of their culture does not resonate with the public as much as Thilo Sarrazin’s warnings that immigrants are altering their host countries’ culture and bringing about its decline. Sarrazin, a former executive at Deutsche Bahn and Berlin finance minister, wrote a bestseller Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany does away with itself), in which he painted an apocalyptic vision of immigrants bringing about the demise of Germany. His book proved immensely popular and spurred a heated political debate.

The European Dream and the Turkish Reality

From the very beginning, the idea of the European Union has involved something beyond just an economic community. Designed to prevent another bloody war on the European continent, it has continued to evolve into a body striving for the ideal of a society with standards for social responsibility, human rights, and civic freedoms. Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union states that the objectives of the EU’s foreign and security policy are not only “to safeguard the common values, fundamental interests, independence and integrity of the Union” but also to “develop and consolidate democracy and the rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Can the Turkish reality live up to this European dream? Can the EU compromise without betraying its founding ideals? The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey from 2010 shows that only 30 percent of Turks thinks Turkey has “enough common values with the West to be part of it.” A majority of EU respondents (58 percent) agrees with this lack of compatibility. In Germany, the country most impacted by Turkish immigration, the number of those who think Turkish values differ too much from European ones for Turkey to become a member is as high as 73 percent. As democratic governments, European member states are held accountable by their publics and need to be responsive to opinion polls when making policy decisions.

Additionally, the EU believes that Turkey must resolve a number of domestic issues to meet European ethical standards. Notably, the Turkish government violates the principle of press freedom to such a degree that it occupies the 138th spot among 178 countries in the 2010 Press Freedom Index, behind even pre-revolutionary Egypt. The political atmosphere makes it risky for journalists to criticize the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan. Only recently, in March 2011, Turkish police detained at least 12 journalists who criticized the government’s handling of the Ergenekon affair, accusing them of having links to this alleged plot to overthrow the government. In response, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle said on March 3, 2011: “Turkish law does not sufficiently guarantee freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights.” At the same time, the government has defended itself saying that the arrests were prompted not by the journalists’ anti-government writing but on national security grounds that could not be revealed to the public. ErdoÄŸan, moreover, is perceived as a politician who “dislikes opposition and is intolerant of criticism.”

Turkey also struggles with ensuring full participation of women in the labor force. Although the female employment rate in Turkey increased by 4 percent between 2006 and 2010, in 2010 it was still just 28 percent, much lower than the EU average of 62.1 percent. Although these are all serious weaknesses of the Turkish application, most EU countries did not enter the Union problem-free. Turkey’s issue is, however, not just about domestic politics; it is additionally complicated by Turkish foreign policy which at times does not coincide with the interests and values of the European Union.

Turkish Realpolitik

Turkish public opinion reflects a trend away from the West in Turkish foreign policy. According to the Transatlantic Trends survey, the percentage of Turks who said Turkey should act in closest cooperation with the EU declined to a mere 13 percent in 2010, from an already rather low 22 percent, whereas the percentage of those supporting cooperation with the Middle Eastern nations doubled to reach 20 percent. Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has led it to engage with countries toward which the EU has taken a much tougher stance like Iran or Syria. The Turkish government also has friendly relations with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a leader accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur. Such actions, writes Turkish academic ÇiÄŸdem Nas, “may lead to the questioning of Turkey’s foreign policy as an interest-based realpolitik rather than a value-based approach based on projecting soft power,” which the EU seems to prefer. Turkey trades not just with the West but also with the Middle East, including nations that have international sanctions placed on them like Iran. In fact, exports to Iran and Syria together are worth more than exports to the United States, and thus Turkey’s interest lies first of all in maintaining friendly relations with states in the region. It is no wonder that Turkey voted against tougher sanctions on Iran and led its own nuclear negotiations with the Iranian government.

Furthermore, Turkey has a visa-free policy for all its neighbors, which might be economically practical but would be unacceptable for the EU were Turkey to become its Middle Eastern border. Turkey’s cautious, case-by-case Middle Eastern policy has been motivated by the complex situation in the region and the country’s “search for stability, peace and cooperation in surrounding regions.” However, Nas continues, integrating “the ideals of democracy and human rights, which are also a prominent aspect of the EU dimension” could be “the key to a more balanced and principled foreign policy.” Aligning its foreign policy goals with the EU would highly increase Turkey’s standing in Europe and raise its chances of membership.

Since the commencement of accession talks on October 3, 2005, Turkey has so far opened 13 out of 33 negotiation chapters, but closed only one, on science and research. The closing of this chapter paves the way for Turkey’s further integration into the European Research Area through an increase in Turkish government funding for R&D and in cooperation between Turkish and EU researchers. The last time a chapter was opened for negotiation, on food safety, was June 2010. There has been no additional progress since. A prolonged accession process is by no means unusual for the European Union. For example, France twice vetoed Britain’s application, which took 12 years to gain acceptance. Spain waited nine years to become a member.

Yet, there is a lingering danger that if it takes the EU another 12 years to make progress in negotiations, Ankara might get discouraged and turn away from the West. Turkish enthusiasm for the EU has been declining as the sincerity of the EU’s intention to admit Turkey is increasingly questioned. According to the 2010 Transatlantic Trends survey, as many as 73 percent of Turks thought joining the EU “would be a good thing” in 2004, but in 2010 this number declined to a mere 38 percent. If the pace of negotiations does not pick up, by the time Europe is ready to grant Turkey membership, Ankara might no longer be interested. The Sisyphus of Europe might very well let the rock roll down to the bottom and stop trying to push it back up to the top.

Dominika Kruszewska is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.