Slow train from Istanbul

Slow train from Istanbul

Opinion piece (The Wall Street Journal)
Katinka Barysch
27 September 2005

The talks on Turkey's accession to the EU are scheduled to start on Monday. But public support for Turkish EU entry continues to fall: less than one-third of voters in the "old" EU support Turkish membership, according to the EU pollster Eurobarometer. Many Western Europeans think of Turkey as too big, too poor and too backward to join the Union. But Turkey is not that different from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU last year. The real difference is that the EU has much less leverage over Turkish policy-making so the accession talks could be longer and harder.

The average GDP per head in Turkey is less than 30% of the EU-25 average, compared with around 50% in the new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe. But it is unfair to compare Turkey, which is at the start of the journey to membership, with those countries that have already arrived. Ten years before accession, Poland's GDP per head stood at 35% of the EU average, and that of Romania was much lower still.

In many ways, Turkey is better prepares for EU membership than, say, Poland or Bulgaria were at the time when they started negotiations. Turkey has had a customs union with the EU since 1996 so trade in goods is already liberalised, and Turkey has adopted many EU rules and regulations, for example those that protect intellectual property and enforce competition. Although the Turkish government still plays a large role in sectors such as energy and telecoms, it does not face the task of having to privatise whole industries, like the Eastern Europeans had to do.

What does set Turkey apart from previous candidates is its history of economic instability. Since the last crisis in 2001, two successive governments have made remarkable progress toward stabilizing the economy and starting structural reforms. The budget deficit has been halved, inflation is down to single-digit figures for the first time in three decades, and the economy is growing briskly. However, Turkey's high government debt, large external deficit and lack of longterm investment leave it vulnerable to swings in investor confidence. Both sides, the EU and Turkey, need to manage the accession process very carefully so as not to endanger Turkey's hard-won macroeconomic stability.

In the case of the Central and Eastern European countries, the accession process was rather smooth because the prospect of EU entry provided a rock-solid anchor for economic reform. In Turkey's case the anchor will be much less firm, for several reasons: First, in the 1990s, the Central and Eastern Europeans were driven by an over-whelming desire to "return to Europe." Although 60-70% of all Turks support their country's EU aspirations, for them EU membership is not about a - however defined - European identity. What they hope for are personal benefits, such as higher incomes, better jobs and the freedom to travel and work in the EU. If these benefits are not forthcoming during the accession process, Turks may become disillusioned with the EU rather quickly.

Second, the Central and Eastern European competed against each other to join the EU, which helped to focus the minds of politicians from Bratislava to Vilnius. Turkey is not racing against any other country. (Croatia is likely to start accession talks soon, but the two countries are probably too different to create a "regatta effect" between them.) So Turkey thinks, wrongly, that it has a stronger hand in the negotiations.

Third, Eastern Europeans were sage in their knowledge that the EU would let them in eventually. Public opposition to Turkish membership and the EU's constant reminders that accession negotiations are "open-ended" make Turkey feel unwelcome and insecure. As a result, its motivation to do what the EU wants is weaker, as is the EU's leverage over Turkish policies.

Ankara will find it a whole lot more difficult than previous candidates to sell painful reforms in the name of EU entry. Many Turks already grumble that the EU is making unnecessary demands in an attempt to slow down their country's accession. Most Turks are wholly unaware of what EU entry entails, namely the wholesale adoption of 80,000 pages of EU laws and regulations, and EU interference in most areas of public life.

The only way for successive Turkish governments to sustain momentum over a decade or more will be to argue that reforms are necessary to make Turkey richer, stronger and more stable - EU or no EU. Since accession talks are likely to be protracted, the timing of reforms is crucial. The current government should probably try to push through the bulk of difficult measures quickly, say, within five years, irrespective of whether the actual EU negotiations proceed that fast. Early reform successes would crush vested interests, for example those of powerful conglomerates or immovable bureaucrats. And they could help to convince sceptical Western Europeans that Turkey is fit for EU entry.

The critics of Turkish accession tend to take a very parochial view. They look at the EU as it is today - with its sluggish growth, high unemployment and slow decision making. They then add today's Turkey, still in the midst of an economic and political transition - and conclude that Turkish membership in the EU would be a recipe for disaster. But Turkey's accession talks will take a decade or more. By the time the country is ready to join, the EU should have reformed its institutions and decision-making procedures and addressed its worst economic problems. If not, the EU of, say 2020 will be slow-growing, inward-looking and unwelcoming. And Turkey would not want to join such a club.