VoxEU Column Europe's nations and regions

Turkey’s road to Europe

Should Turkey join the EU? This column argues for Turkish membership in order to wed the economic interests of the country with the rest of Europe and reduce the chance of future conflict. To start the process of EU membership, Turkey should be invited to enter the European Economic Area.

“The natural effect of trade is to bring about peace.”
Montesquieu (1758)

Successive Turkish governments have expressed their wish to join the EU, reaffirming Turkey’s 1987 application as a European nation for EU membership. With its 75 million inhabitants, Turkey has Europe’s third largest population after Russia and Germany. It shares geography and history with both Europe and the Near East (Dervis et al.,2004). Accession negotiations are progressing, albeit slowly as both sides face major obstacles. Turkey must make significant progress to safeguard democratic principles, human rights, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities. EU member states must reach a consensus on Turkey’s application.

While some states argue on geopolitical grounds for bringing Turkey into the EU, others fear that economic and social difficulties that might arise from premature membership and argue instead for a privileged partnership. The result is that it may be a long time before both sides are ready for accession. Nevertheless, accession is essential to defuse the “powder keg” left over from the former Ottoman Empire.

The 20th century ended the way it began, with bloodshed in the Balkans. The first Balkan war broke out in 1912 when the Bulgarians, Greeks, Montenegrins, and Serbs wrested Macedonia away from the Turks and the Ottoman Empire lost almost all its remaining European possessions. The following year saw a new war as Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece fought over the spoils of Macedonia. A year on, in 1914, a single gunshot in Sarajevo ignited the flames that soon engulfed the entire continent. The First World War 1914-18 cost 19 million lives. The Ottoman Empire collapsed, with massive exchanges of population between Greece and Turkey and massive casualties among Armenians and Assyrians, and a new Turkish state emerged.

The Great War was followed by peace negotiations at Versailles where France and England imposed heavy reparations on Germany and sowed the seeds of a Second World War 1939-45 that cost 50 to 60 million human lives. Western Europe had learnt its lesson. Following the Second World War, Western Europe initiated a peace process through close economic integration and strong regional institutions. The European Community expanded in stages to secure durable peace in Europe. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany put it well when he declared that, to him, one of the chief aims of the EU was that a partial sharing of sovereignty would tie Germany’s hands and would thus relieve neighbours’ fears of renewed German belligerence. This plan has been a remarkable success. Since 1945 Europe has experienced the longest uninterrupted peace in its recorded history.

It is now time to extend this success to the Balkans. Following the death of Josip Tito in 1980 and the collapse of communism in 1989-91 Yugoslavia dissolved into six sovereign states (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and, later, Kosovo) in a repeat of the horrors of World War II. No fewer than five wars of independence were fought in the Balkans from 1991 to 2001. Two and a half million people lost their homes and 300.000 lost their lives. These tragic events unfolded on the EU’s doorstep.

Now, at last, there is peace in the region with good prospects for reconciliation. Some of the main war criminals have been brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The Balkan Peninsula with its 55 million people living in twelve or thirteen countries (some include Moldova, some don’t) is no longer the powder keg it used to be. For this we can to a large extent thank regional free trade encouraged by the EU and the Balkan countries’ aspirations to EU membership (see Wijkman 2009). Free trade is an effective and time-tested means of uniting old adversaries and lifting the standard of life for ordinary people (Martin et al. 2010).

However, EU expansion will take time. While Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania are now members, Slovenia is the sole part of the former Yugoslavia to have joined the EU, in 2004. Croatia is next in line, and will probably join in 2012. One after another the Balkan countries are submitting applications to accede to the EU. If all realise their hopes, this will bring to fruition the project commenced by the founders of the EU, i.e. secure lasting peace throughout Europe. Time is the crucial ingredient for further post-war reconciliation in the successor states to Yugoslavia; for these states and others in the region to qualify for membership; for Turkey to come to terms with its neighbours in the former Ottoman Empire; and last but not least for the EU to absorb recent members and agree to accept new ones.

What to do now?

The long time that these processes will take raises the question of what to do in the interim. We propose that Turkey should be invited to enter the European Economic Area (EEA) as a way station to future EU membership. The EEA constitutes de facto associate economic membership of the EU without subscription to the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies as well as to the euro. It goes beyond the customs union between Turkey and the EU in force since 1996 by ensuring the free movement of services, capital, and labour. It provides for deeper integration and for common institutions for surveillance and adjudication of disputes. Focussing on these economic issues first could speed up the current negotiations, leaving the more difficult political issues to be settled later.

The EEA was in part intended as a training centre and waiting room for nations that needed time to decide whether they wanted to become full members of the EU and to prepare for it. As such, it has worked well. Several EFTA (European Free Trade Area) countries have joined the EU as fully fledged members via the EEA. An invitation to Turkey to enter the EEA would foster closer ties between Turkey and the rest of Europe, ties that would further promote peace and stability in Southeast Europe, since that region and Turkey share a common history and geography. Closer ties could also empower Turkish reforms, accelerating Turkey’s economic and social modernisation. This would help Turkey to make the transformations needed to qualify for EU membership as it has helped several other countries. EEA membership, if offered, would provide Turkey with a stepping stone toward full membership and not be a final destination. It would thus be a less risky strategy than the current membership negotiations, where the outcome is all or nothing.

The architecture behind the EEA agreement would serve its original purpose better than it does now if it were used as a framework for establishing closer economic and institutional links between Turkey and Europe during the long and arduous mutual process of transformation that EU membership requires.


Dervis, Kemal, Daniel Gros, Michael Emerson, and Sinan Ulgen (2004), The European Transformation of Modern Turkey, Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels.
Martin, Philippe, Thierry Mayer and Mathias Thoenig (2010), “The economics and politics of free trade agreements”, VoxEU.org, 9 April.
Wijkman, Per Magnus (2009), Frihandel för fred:Exemplet Balkan (Free Trade for Peace:The Balkan Example), SNS Förlag, Stockholm.


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