Thirty years already! On 14 April 2017, it will be 30 years since Turkey applied for accession to the European Union. A request that still hasn’t been accomplished and which arouses countless debates. One may wonder whether Turkey will join the EU one day but above all whether Turkish youth is still hoping for it.
A bit of history
Although Turkey’s very first application request to the European Union dates back to April 1987, it was only in December 1999 that the country was officially recognised as a candidate country during the Helsinki Summit. The reasons were the non-recognition of the Armenian genocide, the conflict with Cyprus, and the issue of the position of minorities in Turkey. A first negative decision came about in 1989 at the same time as the fall of the iron curtain and when a new Europe was coming into being. Three years later, Turkey finally became an associate member of Western Europe before joining the customs union in 1995. Since then, negotiations have been ongoing and Turkey follows the political and economic programme recommended by the EU in order to apply the eligibility criteria. According to José Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission, the negotiations should continue at least up until 2021.
About Turkey today
In 2010, Turkey became the 15th global economic power; a very encouraging status for a very young population (20 million Turks are between 12 and 24 years old, i.e. 30% of the total population). However, the recent political events (attempted coup on 19 July 2016, resurgence of the conflict with the PKK) have weakened the country on the international scene. Located between Europe and Syria, the country is in a tricky position in the midst of a migratory crisis. Therefore, the attention focused on these questions over the last months, and Turkey’s application was clearly sidelined. Now, what about the young Turks? Do they still see Europe as an Eldorado?
We contacted Feyza, 23, from Bursa, a city in the northwest, two hours away from Istanbul. She told us about her uncertainties: “A coup is one of the worst events that may happen in a democracy. We will not forget easily. The priority now is to regain national unity.” She adds: “The main advantage would be to travel freely within the European Union without any visa request. Young Turks love travelling and they dream of visiting Europe. I would like to work in Europe to enrich my professional experience but it is a project difficult to reach.” In 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government had tried to negotiate a visa waiver for short stays of Turkish people in the EU. There again, the question remained open after much debate. It is however a crucial issue for the Turkish youth, perhaps even more than a political or economic union with Europe.
Deniz, 26, is from Diyarbakir in the south. He studied in Hungary and Germany thanks to the Erasmus mobility programme. He wonders: “Why join the EU? One has to ask oneself the right questions and keep in mind the example of Greece as a lesson. Turkish economy has significantly evolved over the last decade. We should not fall over trying to join the European Union at all costs. What can we bring to the European Union and what can it bring to us in return?”. Feyza agrees: “Being forced to wait, young people don’t know what to think of it anymore and they forgot the reasons why we wanted to join the EU. One part of me is dreaming to see Turkey in the European Union but I also think that we very much like our independence. We are a bridge between Asia and Europe. Our culture is diverse and this is the reason why I love my country.”
A young country
If uncertainties mix with expectations, one has to admit that the accession of Turkey could partly solve the demographic issue of the European Union. The declines in the fertility rate and the rising of life expectancy make Europe an ageing continent. With time it could create a real economic challenge because the EU cannot afford to see the gap between retired and active employees increase. Deniz very quickly identified this challenge when studying in Europe: “There are many more young people in Turkey, it is absolutely obvious. I think that this youth is totally capable of developing new projects within the EU, providing a dynamic impetus. Rejuvenation: this is what we can bring to Europe.”
On the eve of an important constitutional referendum, Turkey is at a turning point. The country could give up its parliamentary system to adopt a presidential one. Here again, there is no doubt that the Turkish youth will play a crucial role in this choice. It is a change that would affect not only Turkey but also its relations with the European Union where most nations have a parliamentary system. Youth will be writing a new page of history on 16 April.