Turkey and the EU

11-15-2012 – FINANCIAL TIMES  – Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, is justifiably proud of the economic and political progress his country has made during his decade in power. But Abdullah Gul, the president, is right to remind Turks that the driving force of that transformation has been the country’s aspiration to join the EU. President Gul’s comments, made in this paper yesterday, should revive a debate that is crucial to Turkey’s future.

Barely one in five Turks believe they will ever become EU citizens. Amid pressure from France, Germany and Cyprus, talks have been frozen for two years. It can hardly be a coincidence that Mr Erdogan’s government has since backtracked on progress achieved early in the accession process.

Curbs on freedom of expression and of the press have multiplied. Dozens of journalists have been jailed for months without trial. Mr Erdogan, with one eye on the presidential elections in 2014, is increasingly intolerant of criticism. He is positioning himself for the vote by appealing to a conservative, nationalist electorate. He has even talked of reviving the death penalty, which was scrapped as part of the accession process.

Such a repudiation of core EU values is unlikely. Mr Erdogan has, after all, pledged to pursue membership until 2023. But as long as accession is stalled and Turkey’s opposition parties are dysfunctional, there will be little check on his exercise of power. There may continue to be strong opposition from some EU states to Turkey’s accession. But this should not preclude restarting discussions, which in any case will take years. By the time they are over, the EU could be a very different place. A two-tier system of eurozone members and the rest is already emerging. It is conceivable that giving Turkey a status similar, say, to that of the UK or Sweden would be acceptable. Enlargement has proved to be the most successful policy ever designed by the EU. It has been the vehicle for promoting prosperity and democracy to once authoritarian states. Even if Turkey does not in the end win membership, allowing it to continue with the accession process will make it a better place for its citizens and a better partner for Europe.