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Dateline 2014: Turkey Joins the EU (Part II)

What obstacles will Turkey and Europe have to surmount to make Turkey’s EU membership a reality?

May 15, 2007

What obstacles will Turkey and Europe have to surmount to make Turkey's EU membership a reality?

Return to part I here.

Brussels, Belgium, January 1, 2014 — So what caused European skeptics to change their minds in the last four to five years? For the answer, one has to focus on the changing positions of various groups holding divergent views on Turkey's membership.

Those who were not in principle against Turkey's membership but opposed to the timing of the accession because of the EU's own difficulties — as well as Turkey's shortcomings in democracy and economic prosperity — were convinced by the remarkable progress made by the respective Turkish governments.

The lag observed in the implementation of the already-passed reforms had been overcome following the Turkish elections in the summer of 2007. Also, the additional reforms required to consolidate the freedom of speech, most importantly article 301 of the penal code, were passed or amended in 2008.

On the EU front, the changes made to streamline the EU's decision-making process have been essential in preparing the ground for the continuation of the enlargement, and thus, Turkey's integration with the EU.

Turkey’s economic progress made it the EU-29’s second-largest foreign trade partner, after the United States. Turkey's high growth rates — and increasing trade with the EU — resulted in sizable growth and job creation in several European countries.

Turkey's contribution to new jobs throughout Europe weakened the arguments of those groups objecting to Turkish membership on the grounds that it would steal jobs from Europe. Also, the reverse migration of Turks living mainly in Germany back to their homeland as Turkey advanced toward full membership helped to refute one of the fundamental arguments of the anti-Turkey lobby.

The European business associations that had quietly supported Turkey's accession on economic grounds were pleased with this progress and started publicly and aggressively supporting Turkey's membership.

As for those leaders and groups who were against Turkey's accession on primarily religious and cultural grounds, they eventually realized that without Turkey being part of the EU, it would have been almost impossible to establish a healthy dialogue with not only the Muslim world — but also the larger Eurasian region.

In this regard, the spread of terrorist activities throughout the western world has been a major warning sign for the EU, which long ignored the seriousness of the issue unless it was directly targeted.

In addition, the electoral victories of social democrat, liberal and green parties in several European countries towards the end of the decade led accession to become a public priority.

Also, the EU's quest for a more active role in global politics changed the perception of Turkey among some political leaders — particularly Christian Democrats — from "a troubled country in a problematic region" to "a pivotal partner in a crucial region."

Moreover, the increasing influence of Russia on the global political scene, the continuing impasse in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the fear of a nuclear Iran as well as the never-ending struggles in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan all made Turkey once more an indispensable partner in the eyes of Europeans.

Another aspect that was crucial in this process was the desire to reduce the EU's reliance on Russia's natural gas. Turkey's efforts to provide an alternative energy route for the West contributed significantly to this outcome.

The construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which carries Turkmen, Kazakh and Azeri gas, has made Turkey an important energy hub — as has a vital pipeline carrying Iranian gas.

The subsequent initiation of pipeline projects, such as Nabucco and others aimed at transporting this natural gas to European markets, has gradually and surely convinced numerous European governments that Turkey is the only country that can help Europe reduce its dependence on Russia.

Moreover, Turkey’s increasingly important diplomatic and economic role in bringing stability to the Middle East and the Caucasus, together with the water resources it controls, have accentuated Turkey’s potential to bring about much-needed regional stability.

Turkey's membership to the EU has been greeted with much enthusiasm in the Muslim world. The process was closely watched by millions of Muslims around the globe — particularly in Europe, since Turkey's membership was perceived as a litmus test for the continent.

Despite earlier disappointments, the EU has been able to deliver a historic decision that will have global implications for many decades to come. Turkey's membership was equally welcomed in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as they now consider themselves strongly and permanently linked to the West through Turkey's formal inclusion into the western camp.

The United States, the staunch supporter of Turkey's membership to the EU, has applauded this historic event. Successive U.S. administrations had constantly pressed the EU to include Turkey, regardless of some voices that raised concerns over losing Turkey to Europeans, thereby diminishing the United States’ leverage over the country.

Russia, Iran and the oppressive regimes of the Middle East appear to be the only losers. These countries and their leaders have attempted to downplay Turkey's success by asserting that Turkey was offered a second-class membership.

The euro-skeptics in Turkey continue to claim that the EU, once again, has acted purely in its own interests. The increasing influence of Russia and China, the threats posed by a nuclear Iran and the dangers of a shaky Middle East have all led the Europeans to change their minds — as has the hope to benefit from Turkey’s alternative energy sources.

According to them, this is a maneuver parallel to taking Turkey into NATO after World War II to exploit it as a buffer against the Soviet Union. The same circles blame the EU for letting down Turkey on several instances when Turkey needed the EU the most. They underline that Turkey is going to be a second-class member because it will not benefit from the free circulation of labor for at least seven years.

Moreover, they add, the per capita financial assistance provided to Turkey will be considerably lower than that extended to previously added countries. Similarly, the nationalist and conservative groups in many EU countries express their suspicions over the European vocation of Turkey.

Most of the blame is directed at the green and social democrat leaders of Germany and France, respectively. Some even question the tacit support extended by Pope Benedict XVI for Turkey's inclusion in the wake of his historic trip to Turkey in 2006.

The EU today, with Turkey as a full member, is clearly a more powerful, dynamic and peaceful union capable of coping with the challenges of the 21st century. It's now a brighter lighthouse shining as a beacon throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

The EU ought not to shy away from demonstrating its soft power to its immediate neighborhood. Doing so brings peace and prosperity to a broader region — and raises hopes for a brighter future all around the globe.

The EU has made a historic decision by confirming Turkey's full membership. Yet, the determination of the Turkish people and the efforts of their respective governments to overcome the insurmountable obstacles throughout the accession process deserve the most praise.