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Turkey's Long March

Will Turkey ever be ready to join the European Union?

July 3, 2003

Will Turkey ever be ready to join the European Union?

Parallels are frequently drawn between the relationship of Turkey and the EU to that between Mexico and the United States.

And indeed, there are some important similarities. Turkey and Mexico both are developing countries with substantial populations — nearly 67 million in Turkey and 100 million in Mexico.

Both countries have experienced large emigrations of their people toward richer countries to the north. In both cases, these migrations preceded economic integration with their northern neighbors.

And one argument for closer economic integration (via the North American Free Trade Agreement or EU membership) has been to reduce migration pressure.

The Mexico-U.S. case, however, makes it overwhelmingly clear that the economic integration of lower-income countries with richer partners requires painful restructuring in the lower-income country.

One typical result is that large numbers of workers are displaced from agriculture and from protected industries, leading to increased pressures favoring emigration over the short term. This so-called migration hump can easily last a decade or more.

Still, there are signs for hope. When Italy, for example, restructured itself and integrated with northern Europe in the early 1960s, at first large numbers of Italians left for France, Germany and Switzerland.

The surge of Italian migration was short-lived, however, because Italy managed to create new jobs for ex-farmers in the north and to launch major development projects in the south.

Could Turkey manage a similar feat, creating jobs for its own ex-farmers and internal migrants following EU integration?

Unhappily, Turkey's recent track record on job creation has been poor. Over the last decade, the working-age population has increased by a million a year. But total employment has remained stagnant at 20 million to 21 million.

Only half of these jobs were in the formal sector, moreover, and many of these were in overstaffed and loss-producing State Economic Enterprises (SEEs) — public-sector companies involved with telecommunications, energy, iron and steel production and transportation.

In fact, it was Turkey's failure to privatize or restructure the SEES that contributed to its deep financial crisis in 2001 and 2002.

Not only has Turkey's domestic record been poor, it also has a history of failing to live up to commitments it has made to Europe in the past.

Turkish and European diplomats have been anticipating Turkey's EU entry since the 1960s and negotiating agreements on that basis, trying to facilitate free movement for Turks in Europe.

In 1963, before the social costs of Turkish integration had become clear, the then-European Community signed an association agreement with Turkey that envisioned the mutual lowering of trade and migration barriers.

In 1973, an additional protocol to the association agreement established a joint commission charged with removing migration barriers between the EC and Turkey by 1986.

The barriers were never removed, however. Turkey balked at lowering its trade barriers as required, and in 1982 the EC suspended relations with Turkey in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup.

Nonetheless, on April 14,1987, against the advice of Germany and other EC countries, Turkey formally applied for membership.

This application was rebuffed on December 18, 1989, on grounds that Turkey had not fulfilled basic human rights criteria and because it was feared that Turkey's low wages and underemployment could lead to mass migration.

Although proponents claim otherwise, in fact no one has any way of knowing whether admitting Turkey to the EU would reduce migration, as promised, or stimulate it.

What we do know, however, is that the last time they had the chance, between 1961 and 1973, some 1.5 million Turks went abroad for employment. That figure was equivalent to 10% of Turkey's 1970 work force — and 40% of its male workers aged 20 to 39.

We also know that interviews with workers in the late 1980s, when Turkey first applied for EU entry, revealed that at least 20% of young men were interested in overseas jobs and that many young women would have liked to join them abroad.

Turkey's population in 2004 will exceed the combined populations of all ten of these new member states of the European Union.

Most analysts guess that if Turkey entered the EU, a large initial wave of Turks — 20 to 30% of the country's young men and women — would travel abroad to test the EU's labor markets as soon as they were allowed to do so.

After this initial wave, however, migration would likely depend on the evolution of labor markets in Turkey and other EU nations.

If Turkey managed to quickly create jobs and raise wages, departures would shrink, just as would be the case if EU labor markets offered few jobs for workers with limited skills and little education.

Certainly, Turkey has changed dramatically over the past 80 years, successfully transforming itself from an autocratic and decaying empire to a modernizing (if unstable) democracy.

If these changes can be sustained, Turkey will gradually establish itself as ready for full EU membership.

Those in Turkey and elsewhere who urge a rapid pace should not be disheartened when their friends tell them that Turkey must first undertake a process of adjustment — economic, political, educational, and cultural.

What Turkey really needs is more honesty about the need for such adjustments and about the considerable time they are likely to require.

Such frankness, unpalatable though it may sound, would be far more helpful than pressure for a rapid timetable that will likely fail.

Such a failure could do great damage both to Turkey and to the EU — far more than would a more cautious, if less dramatic, process.

These article excerpts, pages 107-111, are reprinted by permission of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Volume 82 No. 3, (May/June 2003). Copyright 2003 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.