x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

EU goal is good for Turkey, and its neighbours

Turkey's government is still talking about joining the European Union and notes, with reason, that the process involved in application has already helped the country move forward.

Turkey has grown richer, more stable and more influential in recent years, while the European Union is gripped by a debt crisis which has weakened the euro and toppled governments.

So the dynamics of Turkey's bid to become a member state in the EU have changed sharply over the seven years since talks began. What has not changed is that Turkey still wants in, while many in Europe - starting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy - seem less interested.

In the long run, however, Turkish accession to the EU still makes economic and political sense to Turkey and its government. Even now, with the euro foundering and the whole EU project under fire, there are clear long-term gains in Turkish membership, for Turks and for the EU and the peoples of the region.

In the nearer future, the best part about this policy is that it will keep Turkey moving towards the standards Europe requires for admission (known collectively, in EU-speak, as the acquis communautaire). In 35 categories - fundamental rights, environmental protection, consumer rights, taxation, company law, intellectual property and more - Turkish law and practice will have to be reconciled with EU norms before membership. These reforms will bolster the credibility of a government playing a key role in regional politics from Israel to Syria.

The ruling AK party's adherence to the goal of EU entry means that even while talks with Brussels are frozen, European norms of openness and transparency will exert a gravitational pull on Turkish lawmakers as they go about their daily duties.

This has already happened. Egemen Bagis, Turkey's minister for European affairs, said last week that Turkey's economic boom grew largely from liberalisation towards European standards. In this sense, he said, the EU application process is "more important than the end result".

In the last week, both Zafer Caglayan, the economy minister, and Selim Yenel, Ankara's new ambassador to the EU, have reasserted Turkey's membership aim, in optimistic terms. The AK party government has shown far-sighted courage in persisting with its EU bid because as Turkey booms and the EU stumbles, Turkish public opinion has grown lukewarm, or worse, towards the prospects of membership.

As Turkey prepares to rewrite its constitution, the prospect of a future in the EU can only move that document towards more liberal standards which, in turn, can help Turkey grow stronger still.