Turkey: Good Reasons and Not-So-Good Reasons for Choosing the Middle East Over Europe


January 14, 2011

This week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan travelled to Kuwait and Qatar with an entourage of journalists and businessmen. Mr. Erdoğan’s visit coincided with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Cyprus, where she blamed Turkey and Turkish Cypriots for not taking additional steps to reunify the Eastern Mediterranean island. In response, the Turkish Prime Minister called on his German counterpart to “study history” and pointed out the European Union’s reneging on its promise to lift the embargo against Turkish Cypriots and its overall failure in getting the Greek Cypriots to do more for reunification.

Mr. Erdoğan’s criticism against Ms. Merkel was interesting not only because of what he said and where he said it but also because of what he said next. In his speech to the Kuwait Chamber of Commerce and Industry on January 12, Mr. Erdoğan underscored the historical connections between Turkey, Kuwait, and other Middle Eastern countries and alluded to the Middle East Free Trade Area (MEFTA) initiative as a way to foster economic and even political integration in the region. The high mark of the Prime Minister’s speech was “all we need is each other.”

With one European government after another coming to the brink of bankruptcy, the rise of anti-Muslim and anti-Turkish sentiment around Europe, and the Turkish economy having grown at around 6% in 2010 thanks to its solid banking system and non-EU trade, Turkish people no longer see the European Union as a utopian panacea as they once did.

But does that make the Middle East a viable economic and political alternative to the EU?

Several reasons come to mind – some good, some not so good – to argue why Turkey should or shouldn’t join the EU. A typical skeptic of Middle East integration would argue – correctly – that while Turkey, Iran, and the Arab world make up over 7% of the world’s population (500 million out of a global population pushing toward 7 billion), their real GDP barely makes 5% of the global economy ($2.8 trillion out of $60 trillion). With roughly the same population, however, the EU produces 22% of global income.

But upon closer examination, one can see that the “economic insufficiency” argument can be used to justify closer relations between Turkey and the Muslim world. The gap between high population and low GDP is actually an indicator that there is a lot of room for economic growth in the Middle East. With its diverse economy, Turkey can lead the way for a more prosperous Middle East.

But even if the region’s countless conflicts (Israel-Palestine, Israel-Syria, Israel-Iran, Sudan, and Yemen) were absent, Turkey would still have trouble replacing the EU with MEFTA because the different political, legal, and social systems among Middle Eastern countries are jusst too vast. Even if we could overlook the incompatibility between Turkey’s basically democratic regime with the region’s more authoritarian governments (other than Turkey, only Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, and Lebanon are democratic), we would still have to deal with the diversity of opinions among Middle Eastern societies with respect to the role of religion in public life and the free market. At any rate, an integrated Middle East market would need legal systems that are in tandem with each other becayse investors would like to have similar laws in different parts of the region. But that is still far off into the future.

Despite significant technical hurdles, the enthusiasm and welcoming attitude toward Turkey in the Middle East contrasts sharply with the rise of Turkophobia in Europe. Although Prime Minister Erdoğan denies that his Middle East initiative is not an alternative to the EU, the region is becoming increasingly more attractive for Turkish tourists and businessmen. As visa restrictions are becoming a thing of the past, Turks and other Middle Eastern nations are rediscovering their common cultural and historical heritage. And add to that the immense popularity of Turkish TV soap operas and musicians throughout the Arab and Muslim world, one can get a better sense of the rapprochement.

But this rapprochement can turn out to be less than auspicious for global peace. If Turkey does choose Middle Eastern countries over the EU, it would prove Samuel Huntington’s problematic “clash of civilizations” thesis correct and erect political and psychological barriers between Turkey and Europe. Turkey has always prided itself as a “bridge between East and West.” Choosing one over the other may hurt its desire to become a global player in the twenty-first century.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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