Long before Brexit and before several European countries called for a European army on the margins of NATO, Turkey had stopped pursuing its long-term interest in joining the EU. A former EU minister explains why Ankara changed its course.
As the Atlantic alliance crumbles under the America First agenda of US President Donald Trump, EU leaders are seeking to develop their own security apparatus.
The latest Paris summit, where American and European leaders came together to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, an intense debate exploded among the allies on the possibility of establishing an exclusive European army.
It remains to be seen whether Turkey, which shares its land borders with two European countries and has the second largest army in NATO, will feature in discussions over the formation of the European army. Turkey's entry into EU was blocked for more than 60 years, citing various, often unfounded, doubts and concerns.
We talked to Turkey’s former EU minister Volkan Bozkir, who is now leading the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee in Ankara. He explained how Turkey's participation in the EU as an equal member could change both the political and military balance of the union.
Why do you think Turkish confidence has decreased so much about being part of the EU? Is it because of the union’s prejudiced view against Turkey, or Islamophobia?
VOLKAN BOZKIR: Turkey is a very big country of course, and has the landmass and population to change all decision-making mechanisms. In the EU, the founders have set up a decision making system in their own favour. There is a voting system which we call a “qualified vote”. Germany has 29 votes. Croatia has 10, [Southern] Cyprus has four and 91 votes is what it takes to block any decisions. When Turkey joins, because of its population and landmass it would have 29 votes which would disrupt the entire setup of the EU decision-making process].
All this is one of the major barriers. But what matters the most is self-interest. If the European Union comes to the conclusion that Turkey’s membership will be more beneficial the process will be completed in no time. If there is no such conclusion the process will take longer. That’s where we are.
You were Turkey’s European Union minister at a critical juncture. What do you think about current Turkey-EU relations?
VB: European Union membership is a strategic target for Turkey. We’re talking about a process that will be 60 years old next year, one that started in 1959 with our application. Membership to the EU is different than membership to any other organisation. You become a member of an organisation, in which members] have annual meetings, produce documents, and leaders make decisions on certain subjects. But the European Union goes beyond that, with a structure that really affects people’s daily lives. When I say daily lives I mean the environment, the air that you breathe, the water that you drink, health issues, food safety issues, improving workers’ conditions, democracy and human rights… It’s a broad spectrum. It affects people’s daily lives.
Our goal is to become a member, of course. But even the fact that Turkey’s on the membership path has many advantages for the country. It’s possible to interpret the relationship between Turkey and the EU as the continuation of the membership process and the refinement of mutual interests that will be of benefit to both sides. Of course we have gone through a time in which we didn’t have much high-level interaction [with the EU], including a coup attempt by a treacherous terror organisation [FETO]. In these very important areas, it’s possible to say that the lack of solidarity from the EU has offended our hearts.
What do you think about Turkey’s possible effect on the future of European Union?
VB: Turkey is an important factor here. Turkey is the only country that is not a member of the EU but is a member of the Customs Union. All [EU member] states have joined the Customs Union after they joined [the EU]. They were afraid to join [before they joined the EU]. They preferred to compensate the losses of the Customs Union with the benefits of the EU membership.
But Turkey has joined the Customs Union without taking a cent. It has come to where it is today by making structural changes that can compete with industrial giants. Today we’re talking about a trade volume of $150 billion with the EU thanks to the Customs Union. We export about 15 thousand industrial items which used to be four-five items. Turkey is in a strong place.
We would like to update Turkey’s Customs Union [agreement]. When we do, including agriculture, services and public procurement, this trade goes up to $300 billion trade volume. [In comparison] the trade volume between the US and the EU is $700 billion. The trade volume between Turkey and the EU will be $300 billion. What a great number we are talking about. There is no other country within the EU that can realise this [volume of trade].
Turkey is a big market. It’s a country with 80 million citizens. Everybody is very well-versed in technology. It has a young population, a well-educated, hardworking population. We work a lot. Compared to Europe, where people work 34 to 36 hours a week, in Turkey [you will find] trucks being emptied and trucks being loaded on Sundays, and streets full of people at five AM. Such is the economy. Turkey also has strong armed forces.
Can Turkey play a role in terms of establishing a European army in light of the new European debate on the subject?
VB: Looking at the state the world is in right now, we have the European Union that cannot set up a European army of 60,000 soldiers for many years, and we have Turkey. I always joked, when I was a minister and at other times: “Make us a member [of the EU] and we’ll send a European army of 60,000 soldiers your way. That we can do within a few months.” [Despite their talks] The EU hasn’t been able to set up a European Army, there is no such thing right now.
The security of energy lines. Turkey is in such a strategic location that the EU, with Turkey’s assurance, will ensure energy security. Therefore, all these factors show that Turkey is a key country in solving problems that the EU has.
Could you elaborate on Turkey’s reforms to fulfill its membership requirements?
VB: Turkey has made very important democratic reforms. The new penal code, civil code, law of obligations, law of associations, and the changing of two-thirds of the constitution, were realised in an effort to comply with Copenhagen criteria. Turkey gained a lot from this.
On the other hand, be it the environment or food safety, Turkey took big steps in membership chapters. Unfortunately, because Turkey is a big country with a big economy, the EU constantly took measures to slow down the [accession] process.
But we didn’t pay any mind. Our president, who was prime minister at the time, said: “If you don’t open the chapters [there] we will open them [here] in Ankara. If you don’t close them, we will close them in Ankara.”
This is a decision taken years ago in 2008. Today, Turkey is very close to the point of having opened and closed all chapters. But the EU perhaps hasn’t opened all of them or closed any. But the reality is Turkey has come a long way.
Turkey is doing this [the accession process] because it’s good for its own people. And continues with it because they benefit from it. We haven’t taken any steps just because the EU wanted us to. We have always proceed by picking the steps that would benefit the Turkish people and Turkey. That’s why [our application] has moved along slowly. If Turkey were to act like many of the new members, saying “OK I will do whatever you say, write it on this paper I will do it,” the process would have been easier. That’s not what we did.
Turkey is a Muslim-majority country with its roots in the Ottoman Empire, which once governed large regions from Eastern Europe to the Middle East. As a result, it has dual identities, from having Middle Eastern and Central Asian roots to vast European influences. We have long been a cultural, political, and economic bridge between Europe and the Middle East. Could be be better placed than anybody else in the region to be a perfect mediator between West and East?
VB: Absolutely. First of all, Turkey is the current embodiment of a 700-year-old empire. There could be some memories, some sorrows from this 700-year history in Europe or around the world. But if Germany and France can remove boundaries [between themselves] after having fought so many years, [why not Europe and Turkey?].
If Europe can remove boundaries with Italy after having fought in the past, if countries who have been under the yoke of communism for 45 years, countries who have gone along with the decisions made at the Potsdam Conference, can become EU members, [why not us.?] If the private sector can talk about values, such a fear is unlikely to end the relationship [between Turkey and the EU].
We have five million cognates living in Europe. Even if the EU didn’t allow Turkey to join, there are five million EU citizens who are Muslim Turks living in European countries. So we can say that Turkey is already in the EU. The fear that if there were free movement [between Turkey and the EU] 10,000 Turks would show up every day is baseless. Our people are already there, they have been living there as valued members of society for more than 50 years.
When the European Union was under pressure from the refugee crisis we had perhaps the best relations in recent history. Germany’s Chancellor [Angela] Merkel came to Turkey five times within a period of eight months. The president of the European Commission [Jean-Claude Juncker] came five times. The president of the European Council [Donald Tusk] came as many times. EU-Turkey summits were held. Turkey took serious steps about the refugee issue as any responsible country would, and the fact that the refugee crisis is no longer a threat to Europe, to the world, is mainly Turkey’s doing.
Once the refugee crisis was contained and the parties had come to the final phase regarding [Turkish citizens benefiting from visa-free travel within the EU], the EU demanded a change in Turkey’s anti-terror legislation and halted the visa process. This was a significant factor that negatively affected Turkey’s relations [with the EU] during a time when the public was expecting visa-free travel into Europe.
Europe’s lack of full support for Turkey in the aftermath of the treacherous July 15 coup attempt, as well various EU countries using an undesirable choice of words when referring to Turkey during election speeches, as well as their reactions in Turkey, caused [Turkey-EU] relations to sour and not be as high level as before.
Nowadays mutual interests are at stake. The European Union is going through a really rough time and the Turkey they know has become a crucial [ally].
How do you interpret the European Union’s lack of support to Turkey after the coup attempt?
VB: That’s what we can’t understand. Here we have Turkey, a country going through the application process to the EU, its democracy under threat. The EU is supposed to be all about democracy, human rights and freedoms, but after the coup attempt in Turkey we didn’t see a strong show of support [from the EU] for almost two months. High level visits did not happen. Political statements taking a stance with Turkey, with democracy, were not made. It’s not possible to understand why, but we need to look at the grand picture.
There was a coup attempt in Turkey. Was the EU on our side? No, it wasn’t.
Do you think that the EU will really make us a member state?
VB: Our concern now is to bring Turkey to meet the conditions of EU membership. At that point perhaps the public will not want to become a member. Or maybe the EU will not give Turkey the chance to become a EU member state. What’s important here is that this process continues and to reach that point. Turkey has come a long way.
Even in today’s circumstances Turkey has a stronger economy than half of the EU member states. If it were to become a member it has the capacity to meet membership requirements better than those states. Therefore, there won’t be any problems if Turkey were to become a EU member. But we would like to play the game by the rules and satisfy all conditions and get there, which we are getting to, we will get to.
At that point a referendum will be held in Turkey. Perhaps the voters will say “I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t see any benefit in joining the EU. I don’t want to become a member.” Or perhaps they will say “OK, I want to be a member.” The EU will also hold a referendum, each country will, and what decisions they will come up with will depend on the conditions at the time.