Turkey’s booming economy will eventually make the European Union unable to resist its long campaign for membership, Ankara’s new ambassador to the 27-nation bloc said.
Turkey’s relations with the European Union are at their lowest point in years, with negotiations on membership, which began in 2005, stalled and no immediate prospect of resumption.
But Selim Yenel, appointed as Ankara’s envoy to the bloc in December, says that Turkey’s rapid economic progress – including a growth rate four times that of the EU – will make it difficult for Europe to keep the country out for ever.
“In the past it used to be that Turkey would be an economic burden on the EU,” Yenel said in an interview. “Now that idea is diminishing. People are finding difficulty in finding excuses for Turkey not being a member now.”
After a recession in 2009, Turkey posted growth of 9.0 percent in 2010 and 7.5 percent last year, while the European Union has averaged less than 2 percent annual growth over the past two years. Turkey’s per capita output is now higher than that of the poorest EU member states, Romania and Bulgaria.
Such growth is generating a new middle class and a “tsunami” of social change, Yenel said, making membership only a matter of time. “It’ll be very difficult to refuse us.”
Any EU member can veto an applicant’s
bid for membership, and the strongest opposition to Turkey has come from France. President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he opposes Turkish membership because “Turkey is not in Europe. It’s in Asia Minor.”
In January, the French parliament passed a law making it illegal to deny that the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks nearly a century ago was genocide – a move Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said was racist.
Ankara denies the genocide accusation, though Turkey did not exist as a nation state at the time.
Asked whether he thought racism was keeping secular but predominantly Muslim Turkey out of the European Union, Yenel skirted the issue, saying it was Turkey’s sheer size that caused the most concern – it has a population of 75 million and would be the largest EU member by area.
“There are many arguments against us, whether it’s culture, religion, geography, history, you name it,” he said.
“But the real reason is our size, our population, because all decisions (in the EU) are taken on a population basis. The number of parliamentarians, the voting arrangements, everything. So that gives us the clout of Germany, and the French-German motor doesn’t want another one coming in.”
Yenel, born in İstanbul but partly educated in Boston in the United States, is more enthusiastic about the EU than many EU citizens. He was posted to Brussels in the late 1990s and says the bloc will emerge stronger from its current financial crisis.
He also says the work his country is doing to conform to EU standards – on everything from consumer protection to environmental regulation – has helped its own development.
But the obstacles to membership remain, led by the division of Cyprus. Only Turkey recognises the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in eastern Cyprus, and Cyprus, represented by the Greek Cypriot government, and Turkey do not recognise each other.
As a result, when Greek Cyprus takes over the rotating EU presidency in July, Turkey will boycott meetings chaired by Greek Cyprus or held on the divided island.
Turkey has had a customs union with the EU since 1995 and about two-fifths of its trade is with the bloc – a proportion that has fallen in recent years.
But Turks still have to apply for visas before travelling to the bloc, unlike citizens of other candidate countries, such as Croatia, when they began accession negotiations. That is a particular frustration for Turkey.
“Definitely we need visa-free travel,” said Yenel. “We’re not going to be flooding them with thousands and thousands of Turks because we have our own economy, which is flourishing. Nobody is going to search for jobs here.”
He said his task was to convince EU member states that Turkey would strengthen the EU and be a team player. In the short term, Yenel is hoping for a boost for Turkey’s candidacy in May — if Sarkozy loses France’s presidential election.
“I’m sure that a responsible French president, if he’s in power, will do the same thing,” he said, referring to former President Jacques Chirac’s support for Turkish membership.