American expats: Turkey doesn’t need EU

August 07, 2011, Sunday/ 12:56:00

As negotiations for Turkey’s EU bid drag on into their the sixth year, American expats told Sunday’s Zaman that they do not see EU accession in the near future.

American expats also argued, however, that with its economy forging ahead, Turkey does not actually need to join the club.

As non-Europeans and non-Turks, Americans have an interesting third-party role. Where Americans in general may not have any “skin in the game” of Turkey’s EU bid, Americans living in Turkey not only interact with Turks everyday but also are members of the society.

No polls or studies on the public opinion of foreigners now living in Turkey exist; therefore, Sunday’s Zaman sat down with a few American expats who work for a multinational or international group to chat about current Turkey-EU affairs.

When Harvard University graduate Gillian Morris first came to Turkey in 2007, she said she full-heartedly believed Turkey would be the EU’s 28th member.

Morris, an economic analyst at an international consultancy firm, said, “I was very optimistic, perhaps slightly naïve then.”

Like Morris, Kathy Hamilton, who moved to Turkey from Texas in 1998, said that she was at first very positive about Turkey’s accession to the EU. “When I first moved here, I thought that Turkey’s EU bid was a good idea economically and politically so that Turkey would remain more aligned with the West, at least in the eyes of the West,” said Hamilton, an editor and speechwriter for museums and multinational corporations.

A third American expat, however, who wishes to remain unnamed because of his position in a high-profile business group, said he has been against Turkey’s EU accession from the start. “Europe can be a great model for Turkey on a number of issues -- from public planning to basic infrastructure to workers’ rights -- and should be. But Turkey doesn’t need EU membership for that,” he said.

Another expat, a graduate from Hanover College in Indiana, said that Turkey would be better off if it focused on its internal issues. “With basic needs secured, why bother with the EU?” he said.

Morris said that she is not surprised that Turkey’s leadership has not made any progression on negotiations in the last year. In fact, she compares Turkey’s relationship with the EU to a jilted lover. “It’s natural. After someone says over and over again, ‘We are not interested,’ it makes sense when the person getting slapped finally says, ‘Well, I’m not interested, either’.”

But Turkey is not begging for the EU’s love, as is becoming increasingly evident in Turkey’s growing impatience with stalled talks on Cyprus. Reiterating a warning by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a sort of ultimatum to the EU and Greek Cyprus: “If the Greek side takes over the EU presidency in 2012 without a solution to the Cyprus issue, I say clearly that Turkey’s relations with the EU will be completely frozen,” he said.

The game has changed, according to Morris. “The EU kept saying ‘no,’ but now finds itself in its current economic predicament while Turkey’s economy remains strong,” she said.

Morris said that being a part of the EU would have been more important years ago. “When Turkey was a poorer country, it definitely would have been beneficial to be a member of the EU, economically speaking,” she said.

But Morris agrees that being a member of the EU would still be advantageous for Turkey.

Similarly, the Hanover College graduate points to a conversation he had with an İstanbul taxi driver as an example of how many Turks still believe EU membership to be beneficial.

He said the cab driver was frustrated because he had been cut off by a car driving in reverse through an intersection. The American expat recalled the cab driver’s words: “I don’t care who it is, the EU, the US, NATO, the GCC [The Cooperation Council For The Arab States of The Gulf], China -- I just want someone to fix this nonsense so we can have a functional society.”

The expat found this list telling. “I think that many people feel outside intervention is necessary in order to achieve basic things, like being able to cross the street safely,” he said.

Hamilton, on the other hand, said she does not think EU membership has much to offer Turkey. In fact, she said she thinks being outside the EU is an advantage right now with the economic problems plaguing Europe.

Hamilton said that Turkey’s unique, rich culture is another reason to shy away from EU membership. “After traveling through some EU and non-EU countries in the region, I feel that over time, much of the national character gets lost in the numerous EU-imposed regulations,” Hamilton said.

Morris and the Hanover College graduate acknowledged Turkey’s room-for-growth areas -- the Kurdish issue, minority rights and Cyprus -- but Morris also said she thinks part of the problem is the unfortunate prevalence of Islamophobia in the EU. Hamilton also said that she has heard many Turks voice the same concern.

The American expats said that, in the end, they are at least doubtful of Turkey becoming a club member anytime soon.

But Morris noted that Turkey’s accession would be advantageous for the EU nations as well. Turkey may not fit the EU cookie-cutter mold, but the EU needs to change, Morris said.

“I think the EU with Turkey would be a more robust, interesting and diverse EU,” she said.

Contrasting these Americans expats’ views of Turkey’s accession to that of a European expat reaffirmed the findings of a public opinion poll released in March. According to “Transatlantic Trends: Leaders survey of leaders in the European Union and the United States,” American leaders and the American public are more likely to have a favorable view of Turkey than Europeans.

The European public was less enthusiastic about the idea of Turkey joining the EU, with only 22 percent thinking it would be a good thing, according to the poll. Of the American public, 40 percent thought the same. Close to 38 percent of Turks said Turkish accession to the EU would be a good thing -- down from 73 percent in 2004.

UK expat Thomas Bacon’s opinion on Turkey’s EU bid differs greatly from that of the American expats who interviewed with Sunday’s Zaman, but he said that makes sense.

Bacon, who received his master’s in international relations from Bristol University and wrote his dissertation on Turkey’s EU bid, said he is not surprised by Americans’ confident support for Turkey’s accession. “Americans say, ‘Of course Turkey should be accepted into the EU,’” Bacon stated. “And they can say that. After all, they don’t foot the bill.”

In his dissertation Bacon analyzed the accession from both the Turkish and the EU’s point of view, finding that it would fundamentally alter, though in a positive way, the relationship between the two entities.

Though he said he cannot say whether the EU is a “Christian club,” Bacon did say that Christianity is a fundamental element in European history.

Bacon did share at least one thing with the American expats -- his optimism for Turkey’s accession has also waned since he moved here. “I was more positive two years ago,” Bacon said. “But the more I have seen, the more I think it [Turkey’s EU accession] is not going to happen any time soon. …Maybe in 10 years, if it happens.”

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