ISTANBUL - The sales clerk selling necklaces in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar thinks that Turkey has little need to become part of the European Union. Like many young Turks coming of age in a time of increasingly frosty relations between Europe and Turkey, Onur Akbal is sceptical whether the long-stalled accession process for Turkey to join the bloc even matters anymore.
In the tiny jewellery shop where the 28-year-old works, tucked in the middle of the maze that is the city’s central marketplace, locals trickle in and out. Selling strings of beaded necklaces and glitzy rings in his little shop to Turkish clients is more than enough, he said.
“I don’t think Turkey should join the EU because our regular Turkish customers already bring a steady stream of income, they enrich us,” Akbal told TRT World, speaking of the jewellery trade in which he has worked for the past 13 years.
The ambivalence over Turkish membership comes shortly after the European Parliament voted to suspend accession talks with Turkey over concerns about developments there after the failed military coup in July. Europe has criticised the country for what they call “disproportionate repressive measures,” but the November 24 vote is not binding. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will allow Syrian refugees to cross Turkish borders into Europe, and that alternatives to the EU are available to Turkey.
Does it even matter anymore?
The bigger question remains, however, whether it even matters anymore – from Turkey’s perspective – if it joins the EU or not. The road to the EU has been long and arduous for Turkey, whose accession journey goes back to 1987, when it applied to become a member of what was then called the European Economic Community.
Since then, out of the 35 chapters – the criteria countries must meet in order to be accepted – needed for accession, only 16 have been opened for talks. Many have been blocked by those countries that oppose Turkey's membership.
For accession, the chapters of the EU acquis, also known as the “negotiating chapters,” need to be satisfied. They outline extensive criteria that include adopting EU laws and enacting reforms to create organisations to execute those laws.
Yet many Turkish citizens appear to have little interest in pursuing what increasingly seems like a Herculean feat. A recent public opinion poll conducted in mid-November by the Turkish daily newspaper Haberturk, in conjunction with the Andy-Ar polling company, reflected the ambivalence of the Turkish public towards joining the EU. Some 47.4 per cent of participants said the suspension of membership talks was negative for Turkey, while 44.3 per cent said it was positive.
The jewellery salesman’s sentiment of indifference, or even reluctance, was echoed by others who TRT World spoke with. A student from Bogazici University was equally resigned about the situation.
“Turkey entering the EU might not affect our daily life that much,” said Lacin Edis, 20, a second year political science student at the university.
“Maybe we will be exposed to different cultural norms,” Edis said, sitting in a wood panelled coffee shop. “Because there will be more of an interaction [with the EU], more of a back and forth, we might become more removed from our culture.”
Not everyone was so dubious, however.
“[Turkey joining the EU] would affect us in that we would have better human rights, better laws, better opportunities to have the same rights as Europeans,” Ufuk Yildirim, 47, another shopkeeper at the Grand Bazaar, told TRT World.
“It would be better for people, for nations, in my opinion,” said Yildirim, standing in the small pashmina shop where he works, surrounded by patterned multi-colour wraps.
Others look at potential accession perhaps more realistically, knowing that EU membership will not be granted any time soon. “Maybe decades, but not in the near future,” said 23-year-old Kaan Sari. “It doesn’t affect my future because my future doesn’t include that time period.”
One of the people who believes Turkey is better off not joining the EU is another sales clerk at the Grand Bazaar. Standing in the ceramics shop where he works, Ahmet Balcioglu, 37, told TRT World that he is “dead set against it.”
“I think it’s best to be self-sufficient,” he said. “I prefer [aligning with] Shanghai.”
Despite the scepticism from many ordinary Turks like Balcioglu, some Turkish experts say the EU still has plenty to offer the Eurasian state.
“In international relations, the state of affairs change very quickly,” said Can Baydarol, an EU expert and vice-president of the European Union and Global Research Association in Ankara. “Therefore it’s not quite possible to look at [where we are] today and comment on the long-term relations.”
There is a “current showdown” between Turkey and the EU, Baydarol agreed. Yet he argued that European countries opposed to Turkey joining the EU are acting against their self-interest.
Meanwhile, on the Turkish side too, there are definite benefits to EU membership. Access to an open market includes job opportunities for Turkey’s 75 million citizens.
Serdar Ozturk, coordinator of the Directorate for Political Affairs at Turkey’s Ministry for European Union Affairs, was cautiously positive about the potential benefits.
“Assuming we achieve [freedom of movement for workers], it’s possible that Turks could go to Europe and find new job opportunities,” he said.
Turkey would also benefit from further European investment flowing into the country, he said, and the volume of trade between Turkey and its biggest trading partner would increase. Already, 75 percent of foreign direct investment to Turkey comes from the EU.
“Southern European countries, countries that joined the EU later on, they made great gains,” the government official said, highlighting the economic gains made by Poland and the Baltic countries.
“There are also countries where it didn’t happen to such an extent… It depends on the country’s economic potential.”
Membership would also symbolically bring together the West and the Middle East. With Turkey already member of NATO and Interpol, its EU membership would lend further military power to the bloc.
Turkey is primed to be a leading economy in the next few decades, said Mesut Casin, a Europe and Middle East expert who teaches at Ozyegin University. The country has a projected market of 100 million people, and a current trade of 200 billion dollars expected to double to 400 billion dollars within the next 20 years, he explained.
“A developed, economically stable Turkey serves as a ‘buffer zone’ for the EU,” said Casin. “It helps the EU be more stable, to sleep better, and most importantly, it prevents illegal human trafficking, drug trafficking and arms trafficking. Secondly, Turkey is a very important actor in counterterrorism.”
Casin warned that alienating Turkey would create a lose-lose scenario for both Brussels and Ankara.
“If [the EU] doesn’t want a Muslim secular Turkey and brings Islamophobia to the forefront, it will lose Turkey,” he said.
The rift between the two parties comes amidst Turkey’s unhappiness with what it views as Europe’s slow response to the coup, with Erdogan telling French newspaper Le Monde in August that the leaders of the Western world did not respond to the failed coup.
Earlier this year, Turkey had inked a deal with the EU that Turkey would host refugees and close all irregular migration routes. In exchange, Turkey would recieve €3 billion and its citizens would benefit from visa-free travel within Schengen states. With the recent souring of Turkey-EU relations, this deal is also in jeopardy.
Convincing either party to rekindle stalled relations seems no easy task, however. Europe is critical of Turkey, and many Turks shun the bloc.
“They don’t see us as a proper fit for them. They’ve been stalling us for a long time. I don’t think Turkey will have much of a benefit,” said Edis, the university student.
An Economist article published in October quoted two young Turkish women as calling Europeans hypocrites: “[the European Union] expects solidarity after terrorist attacks but offered little during the coup.”
“On one hand we have a clash of values and on the other we have mutual interest which makes both sides indispensable for each other,” says Baydarol, summing up the relationship between the two parties.