02/13/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

The Long Road to Turkey's EU Accession

Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent comments about keeping Turkey's European Union bid on the table, Turkey still has a along way to go before it makes its way to an EU membership.

The slow decay of Turkey's free democracy has hit another low point as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan continues to tighten his grip on the country. After his latest corruption scandal broke last month, people took to the streets in protest in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities around the country. Protests erupted again in January in response to government censorship of the Internet. Though the catalysts are different from the Gezi protests that took place during the summer of last year, the sentiment is the same. Mr. Erdogan's oppressive anti-demonstration measures and unapologetic corruption are robbing the Turkish public of the democratic representation they once enjoyed. As a result, Turkey is alienating itself abroad, potentially robbing its citizens of the financial security EU could provide.

Last June, Mr. Erdogan's decision to use offensive police force, tear gas, and water cannons to put down peaceful protests stalled planned talks to Turkey's accession into the EU. Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger told Reuters that Turkey was under "a probationary period [for] how it handles basic rights for citizens, how it handles the right to demonstrate and the right to free speech."

Though Mrs. Merkel has just said she supported renewed accession talks with Turkey, in the past she has been critical of Turkey and the country's bid for EU membership for the same reasons Mr. Spindelegger mentioned. She also hasn't changed her position at all.
Instead of resolving these problems, Turkey responded by accusing Western countries of orchestrating the recent protests and making disparaging remarks about the EU. Mr. Erdogan's chief advisor, Yigit Bulut, explicitly called the EU "a loser, headed for wholesale collapse."

Turkey's EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış followed in suit saying, "Turkey doesn't need the EU, the EU needs Turkey. If we have to, we could tell them 'Get lost, kid!"

Mr. Erdogan's decisions to suppress protests and incarcerate record numbers of journalists have kept Turkey out of the European Union. In spite of both the world economic and euro zone crises, there is strong evidence that countries have still benefited from membership in the European Union. According to a 2014 article written by Dr. Milada Anna Vachudova, new members to the EU gained the benefits of rising investment and rising trade, leading to "improved living standards for their citizens, accelerated economic growth and substantial financial transfers." That same article found that new membership status in the EU leads to annual GPD gains of an extra 1.5-2.0 percent.

EU membership also has foreign policy benefits. As Soli Özel, professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul points out, everything that happens in the EU affects Turkey, regardless of whether or not Turkey is a member. Membership would give Turkey a voice to dictate what happens in the EU. You can't play cards if you're not sitting at the table.

Turkey could ostensibly tell the EU to "get lost," as proposed by Mr. Bağış, but this would be at a great cost to the Turkish population.

Turkey doesn't have the economic resilience that Mr. Erdogan seems to think it has. Its unsustainably high growth is predicated on debt-based private spending and property investment fueled in part by Turkey's practice of awarding big contracts to highly leveraged companies.

The lira has lost one-fifth of its value in the past year. The stock market has dropped 32 percent since May of 2013, and bond markets have lost $18 billion worth of notes sold in the last six months.

As Turkey's political instability continues to damage its economy, it won't have the foreign political capital it once did.

A better standard of living for Turkish citizens through increased foreign trade induced by EU accession could help Turkey walk in the opposite direction from creeping autocracy and looming economic problems.

But while Mr. Erdogan has turned his back on many of his allies, he has also been building Turkey's relationship with Iran.

Vali Nasir, dean of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins notes that Turkey's nascent relations with Iran do have potential economic and political benefits. As relations between the U.S. and Iran improve, Turkey could serve as a broker between Iran and the West. However, there is no guarantee that Iranian and Western relations will continue to improve. Simultaneous EU membership and friendship with Iran could be a difficult balancing act, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.

The only way these foreign policy strategies can be combined is if Turkey keeps the possibility of EU membership alive. If Mr. Erdogan keeps suppressing peaceful demonstrators and making strong-armed attempts to accrue more power will make this impossible, and Mrs. Merkel's renewed engagement with Turkey will be for naught. The argument can be made that ceding sovereignty to join an international organization is not in a country's best interest. That argument can't be made when the only thing a leader is being asked to give up is the mistreatment of his citizens and the undermining of their democracy.