Turkey and the EU: Between hope and disillusion

Turkish society benefits more from the preparations for joining the European Union than it would from membership itself. The EU needs a prosperous Turkey more than Turkey needs the Union. In Istanbul, you often hear such views expressing both hope and disillusion in potential EU membership.

I did not have much experience with the laid-back attitudes experienced in Turkey, and I felt somewhat reluctant to talk to two young men who just came up to me at the Taksim Square, famous for its Monument of the Republic, in the heart of Istanbul.

I soon realized this way of making friends is just a part of everyday routine. We started to chat and this conversation allowed me to get answers to a few questions.

Old Constantinople, a view from the Galata Tower.

“Yes, of course, we want our country to join the European Union. Maybe we aren’t completely ready yet, but a lot of things are changing in Turkey,” said Burak, one of the two young men. The other, Cagdas, added: “What do we expect? Many of us believe that membership will lead to more jobs, higher wages and better standards of living.”

Their words also revealed some bitterness: More and more people here believe that the EU doesn’t want Turkey to be a member, because the culture and religion are different.

Their thoughts precisely hit the core of the issue, I realized after talking with EU experts. Turkey became an EU candidate in 1999 and since then it has been strongly linked to the European institutions. Accession negotiations began in 2005, but many people think that under the current conditions, Turkey will never be integrated into the European Union.

Yakup Kocaman

Turks believe that their country belongs to Europe, but this is of more symbolic importance than it may relate to real advantages. “Our economy has not been particularly affected by the global financial crisis. Our bank system is stable, our companies are prospering. Many European firms have already placed their operations in Turkey and have produced large profits, benefitting from the hard work of the Turkish people,” said Yakup Kocaman,  business editor of the Yeni Safak newspaper.

Kocaman added he hasn’t experienced general discontent in the society. Although the minimum wage is only 700 Turkish liras, so just over 300 euros, it’s sufficient to make a living. “We all, of course, want to move higher. For example, Istanbul is considered an extremely expensive city, but 75 percent of the population can still afford to own a property here,” Kocaman explained.

A photo of the Dolmabahce Palace from the sea.

Nurhan Toguc

The main engine for Turkey’s economic dynamism is its youthful society – the average age of the population is about 24, among the lowest in the world, said Nurhan Toguc, chief economist at the Atat Yatirim investment company. “Many European countries struggle with huge state debts, but we do not,” she said.

“The Turkish society is very mobile, people are ready to move any time from the Eastern regions to Western Turkey for seasonal work. At the same time, Turkish migration to Western Europe has slowed down, and an increasing number of young Turkish people return due to the rising unemployment in the EU and the improving opportunities at home,” Toguc said.

An tram on Istiklal Avenue.

LINGERING POVERTY

Only about 22 percent of women hold jobs, compared to more than 60 percent in the EU. Special inducements would be needed to encourage more women to get jobs, Toguc said. And though the quality of life has gradually improved for the past 10 years, poverty remains. The rich are very rich, the poor is very poor.

Nevertheless, people appear happy to be content with what they have. This positive attitude has cultural roots: Turks maintain strong bonds with family and friends, and they can always count on a helping hand in times of need.

“I think, if Turkey joins the EU, it will be mostly beneficial for Europe. Power relations in the global economy will transform, and in the newly shaped system our country will play an important role. China in Asia, Russia in Central Asia, Brazil on the American hemisphere, Germany in Europe and Turkey in the Middle East. Turkey will become a leading power,” said Nurhan Toguc.

The Gate of Constantinople in Istanbul with the Suleiman Mosque in the background.

As for the state of governance and democracy, there is both criticism and support. Answering a question about government pressure on the news media, Deniz Ergurel, a free-lance journalist and secretary-general of the Media Association, described the situation this way:

Deniz Ergurel

“News about the intimidation of journalists is not true. The state of democracy has improved and led to larger freedom of the press since the ’90s. The situation is still not perfect, but the relevant laws are much better. If you want to understand the situation here, you should know the circumstances in Turkey. Terrorism is a problem and authorities have always taken tough actions, and the groups supporting terrorist groups have been under really great pressure. But articles can be written about anything, including the Kurdish issue. The social media community has been an important forum for expressing different opinions.”

Ergurel believes that the EU accession process will stimulate democratization and broaden fundamental rights in Turkey, benefiting the whole society. The country needs further reforms, he said. A new, democratic constitution should replace the current one which was adopted in 1982 during the military regime.

The ever-bustling Istiklal pedestrian street.

Sanar Yurdatapan

“Indeed, we have good and progressive laws, but they are not always implemented,” said Sanar Yurdatapan, a musician and human rights activist who heads the Initiative for Freedom of Expression. “The civil sector is growing, but it is not strong enough yet, many spheres of public governance are not transparent. The media are under government and economic influence exerted via owners.”

“Although the sultanate system was abolished and the republic was established 90 years ago, Turkey still functions as a strong patriarchal society where traditions are often more important than the written law,” Yurdatapan said.

“In the past few years I witnessed many positive changes, but the issue of the EU accession has divided our society. The European Union expects Turkey to meet many requirements which it had not demanded from others. This disappointed a lot of people. The Turkish economy has been steadily growing and this may easily make people think that we should take our own path.”

Attila Horváth is a reporter for the Hungarian daily Zalai Hírlap, where this article was originally published. The article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of Transitions and Zalai Hírlap and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.”

Translated by Fruzsina Liptai. Photos by Attila Horváth