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E.U.'s real problem with Turkey

By Richard Adams— © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

The real problem about Turkey joining the European Union is not religion but its size and economic weakness.

THE DEBATE over Turkey's membership of the European Union has so far focussed on how the E.U. will cope with allowing in a largely Muslim country. But much of that analysis has missed the point: one of the biggest barriers to Turkey's entry to the E.U. is not that it is Muslim, but that it is poor.

Given that the E.U. is an economic union before anything else, the economic arguments for and against Turkish entry may be much more relevant than its adherence to Islam. For all the talk of a "clash of civilisations," what is being overlooked is a clash of economic interests, between a lower-middle income economy, with a substantial rural economy, and the wealthy industrialised nations of western Europe.

The extent of Turkey's poverty can be illustrated on a chart showing Turkey's national income per head compared with that of recent entrants to the E.U., such as Poland and the Czech Republic, with the Turkish figure of $2,790 almost half that of Poland's $5,270, and only a tenth of the United Kingdom's national income, which stands at $28,530 to Germany's $25,250 and France's $24,770.

While the figures show how far Turkey's economy lags behind other members of the European club, the central problem is more than that: not only is Turkey poor, compared with the rest of the E.U., but it is large. With nearly 71 million people, Turkey would be the second largest E.U. member-state after Germany. The union can easily afford to encompass relatively low-income states such as Latvia (national income per head $4,040), with its population of a little more than two million out of an E.U. of 450 million. But the entry of a country of 71 million is on another scale entirely.

Turkey's sheer size means that its economic weaknesses cannot be airily dismissed. Nor can those in favour of Turkish entry simply assume that the possibility of E.U. entry will magically transform the Turkish economy into a modern industrial state sometime in the next decade. There is as much chance that the strenuous changes Turkey will have to go through in order to be ready may have the opposite effect, of recession, unemployment and instability. And there is a danger that an ill-timed and underprepared Turkish E.U. entry could be disastrous for the country itself. None of this means that Turkey's entry into the E.U. should be counted out on economic grounds alone. What it does mean is that the E.U. will have to monitor Turkey's economic performance carefully before making a final decision on entry, and it should take a more active role in offering economic assistance over the 10 to 20 years it may need to prepare.

The need for sensitive handling is highlighted by Turkey's recent economic history. Between 2000 and 2001, Turkey suffered a financial convulsion and severe currency depreciation after removing capital controls, with its economy contracting by nearly 10 per cent. The International Monetary Fund moved in with a multibillion-dollar bailout, and for most of the past three years has guided Turkish economic policies.

The good news is that Turkey's economy has so far made a remarkable recovery. Its economy grew by nearly 8 per cent in 2002 and 6 per cent in 2003, with the IMF forecasting another bumper year of growth in 2004. Yet Turkey has a long way to go, even if it can sustain relatively high rates of growth. According to World Bank figures, a surprising proportion of Turkey's population lives in relative poverty: 10 per cent are said to live on just $2 a day. The percentage of its population over the age of 15 able to read and write is 87 per cent — below the world average for its income level, and far below countries such as Bulgaria, which has 99 per cent literacy.

Turkey's economy also remains heavily devoted to agriculture. While agriculture is responsible for just 3 per cent of Poland's economic output, in Turkey agriculture makes up 13 per cent. Elsewhere, foreign investment remains low and concentrated in the wealthier western regions.

As we have seen from the case of Poland, E.U. entry does not mean a wave of migrant workers to the wealthier E.U. countries. Given its size and relative poverty, the bigger danger of E.U. entry is that the Turkish economy is vulnerable to being washed away by exposure to the full force of the single market. If not properly prepared, Turkey's entry could do it more harm than good.

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