Turkey’s path to membership of the European Union has effectively closed after the increasingly authoritarian prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the country’s first-ever presidential elections.
Officially, Erdogan maintains that he is still committed to E.U. membership and that Turkey’s accession program, which began in 2005, is still active, but his lack of tolerance of dissenting voices, combined with his moves to take control of Turkey’s judiciary and central banks, has alarmed E.U. countries.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she is skeptical whether Turkey will ever become a full member of the European Union and Turkey too, appears to have lost interest. Mr. Erdogan, for his part, barely mentioned European Union membership during his campaign, where he appealed mainly to conservative, rural voters.
But despite Turkey’s coolness towards the European Union, Germany remains an important trading partner. Around three million Turks live in Germany: the most significant ethnic minority group in the country.
“It’s become patently clear over the last year that the Erdogan government is no longer particularly interested in the journey towards E.U. membership and more importantly, it’s become clear in Turkey’s eyes that the E.U. is not prepared for Turkey’s accession,” said Nicholas Spiro, founder of political risk consultancy Spiro Sovereign Strategy.
But despite Turkey’s coolness towards the European Union, Germany remains an important trading partner. Around three million Turks live in Germany: the most significant ethnic minority group in the country and Germany is Turkey’s main export market, worth around $13 billion.
Turkey is also an important market for Germany: they only make up around 2 percent of exports, but this figure has quadrupled in the last decade and is likely to grow further. More significantly, Turkey is Germany’s fifth-largest export market outside the European Union.
The German-Turkish Chamber of Commerce estimates that around 14 percent of foreign-owned companies in Turkey come from Germany and are expanding beyond the traditional machinery and automotive sectors into other consumer goods.
Its spokesman Sebastian Sönksen said that he did not believe this trade would be threatened by the presidential elections, nor is E.U. membership critical to trading prospects given that the two economic blocs are already in a customs union. German firms will keep investing as long as Mr. Erdogan pushes forward with growth-friendly economic policies, he said.
Mr. Erdogan pledged during the election to make Turkey the world’s 10th largest economy by 2023, which would mark 100 years since Turkey’s founding. Despite the recent economic wobbles, he vowed to continue the policies that have led to a near quadrupling of Turkey’s economic output – but also a build-up of debt – since he came to office in 2003.
Turkey’s economic growth has played a significant role in insulating Mr. Erdogan from criticism.
Last summer, a movement that began as a protest against plans, backed by Mr. Erdogan, to build a shopping centre on the popular Gezi park in Istanbul, spread across the country as young, urban professionals came out to campaign against the country’s increasing authoritarianism. The police cracked down brutally on the protestors, the government temporarily banned social media including YouTube and Twitter, and members of the police and judiciary who criticized Mr. Erdogan were removed.
The European Commission, which produces an annual report on Turkey’s EU membership bid, said the “excessive use of force by police” and an “overall absence of dialogue” raised serious concerns, but Mr. Erdogan has managed to ride out the storm, portraying his opponents as anti-Islamic, Western-backed agitators.
On Sunday, he won around 52 percent of the popular vote, with most of his support coming from the conservative, rural inland areas in Anatolia. His main rival Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, who was more popular with voters on the urban, liberal coast, got 38 percent.
While markets appeared to react well to Mr. Erdogan’s victory, Mr. Spiro said his autocratic rule also posed the biggest threat to his survival.
“The number one fear right now within Turkey is the central bank, which has lost or is perceived to have lost its independence and is cutting interest rates like no tomorrow,” he said. “In global markets, the sentiment towards emerging markets has deteriorated significantly and Turkey is a vulnerable emerging market that has been sailing very close to the wind.”