Turkey and Europe: Reject or Be Rejected?

By Aziza Jamgerchinova

One of Turkey’s overriding goals has been an entry into the European Union.  In fact, the country’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was so keen on aligning the country with the Western norms that he aggressively tackled a number of thorny issues like minority and women’s rights since coming into the office in 2002.  His efforts were often in the spotlight, while the rest of the world pondered whether Europe would let a country of 80 million Muslims join the club.

Turks have soured on the idea of joining a sinking European Union.Photo: Kunal Kain
Turks have soured on the idea of joining a sinking European Union.
Photo: Kunal Kain

The potential impact of the economic and political tie to Europe was an issue discussed during every single company visit on our trip.

While individual opinions may have differed, it was clear that the on-going sovereign debt crisis, which has brought Europe to its knees, made Turkey re-consider its options.  At least within the business circles, Turks have soured on the idea of joining the EU.  The Arab Spring has created new opportunities for Turkey to wield its power in the region, and many are asking the arduous question: Should Turkey reject Europe before being rejected?

As the lure of joining the EU is fading, Turkey is increasingly looking East instead of West, embracing its Muslim identity along the way. Foreign Relations Director at MUSIAD, a religiously conservative business group of 20,000 companies that is close to the prime minister, told our group about his recent trip to Tunisia and Morocco.  Turkish manufacturing and construction companies are vying for government contracts and new business partnerships in that part of the world.  MUSIAD often finds itself in the role of a “middle man,” connecting the right companies with one another.  The demand for the Turkish know-how in road building and residential construction is high in Tunisia and Morocco, and is only expected to grow.

CEO of Abdi Ibrahim, a pharmaceutical company in Istanbul, said the firm has recently acquired the majority stake in Kazakhstan’s Global Pharm.  She emphasized that Central Asia, along with other former Soviet states, was a growing market for them with ripe opportunities that won’t be found anywhere in Europe.  Needless to say that almost half of Kazakhstan’s population is Muslim.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership talks have stalled, and recent public opinion polls indicate that the country’s ambition to connect itself to sinking Europe is waning.

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