OK – A geography question for all you pub trivia freaks out there. What’s the capital city of Estonia? Yeah, I know it’s on the tip of your tongue. Come on, spit it out! Tallinn, right? Bravo, well, done! And, of course, you knew it would be European Capital of Culture this year, right? Along with Turku, Finland? Seems the gnomes of Brussels accept that they erred last year. Essen, Pecs and Istanbul were just too many culture capitals for one year, so from now on, they’ve decided two at a time will be enough.
So, it seems we have two things to congratulate the Estonians on. The other, of course, is their elevation to membership of the EU Euro club as of 1 January 2011. No doubt the Germans will be delighted to know they’ve got the ‘Baltic Tiger’ at their side to help bail out those frailer members of the club: Greece, Ireland, and the other ones making up the economic barnyard of ‘PIIGS’.
But seriously, folks, I really have to admit I knew nothing about Estonia until I read that news item on the latest member of the Euro Club . . . so I checked them out, and I want to share my findings with you.
I had previously heard of the ‘Baltic Tiger’ – apparently a reference to their booming economy around the time they were accepted into the EU in 2004. Sadly, it seems the growl has gone out of the tiger in recent times. The CIA World Factbook website reports that, since the real estate bubble burst in 2008, their economy has been contracting at an annual rate of around 15%, one of the highest (or lowest) rates in the world.
Still, the Germans don’t need to fear a major drain on their financial largesse. According to the 2000 census, Estonia had a total population of 1,370,000 – not a figure to strike fear into anyone’s heart. Interestingly, according to latest estimates, that population has fallen by 30,000 in ten years. Wonder where they went?
Another item of interest I came across on the CIA site, and I’m quoting here:
Estonia is a ‘growing producer of synthetic drugs; increasingly important transhipment zone for cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and synthetic drugs since joining the European Union and the Schengen Accord; [there is] potential money laundering related to organized crime and drug trafficking is a concern, as is possible use of the gambling sector to launder funds; major use of opiates and ecstasy.’
Well, that’s enough on Estonia. I don’t want to dwell on their plight – looks like they’ve got enough troubles to go on with. However, the news about their joining the Euro club did prompt me to check out one or two other recent additions to the united Europe. Bulgaria and Romania were judged to have met the EU’s membership conditions, and joined on 1 January 2007. BBC News, around that time, ran an article on the subject, asking, among other questions, whether these two former Communist countries were really ready for membership. Again, I’m quoting:
‘Officials at the European Commission [were] quoted as saying that they are not really ready, but that delaying accession may not be the best way to encourage further reforms. The Commission was hoping, for example, that Bulgaria would take big steps over the summer to tackle high-level corruption and organized crime, but officials in Brussels say they have been disappointed.’
According to the same report, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are expected to join in the near future. Meanwhile, Turkey’s membership talks are on again-off again, which brings me to the point of this article. I’ve just been reading an interview with a Turkish academic, Dr Armağan Emre Çakır, assistant professor at the European Union Institute of Marmara University in Istanbul. Dr Çakır has apparently, recently published a book entitled ‘Fifty Years of EU-Turkey Relations: A Sisyphean Story’.
Now Sisyphus, as I’m sure you are aware, was a king in ancient times who was punished by the gods in a particularly infuriating way. A thoroughly objectionable character, Sisyphus apparently let it be known that he considered himself superior, not only to his mortal subjects, but to the gods themselves. His divine punishment was to roll, for all eternity, a huge boulder to the top of a hill. The fiendish nature of the punishment was that, with the summit in sight, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom, whence the unfortunate king would have to begin his task again.
Now, I haven’t read Dr Çakır’s book, so I can’t say whether, with this analogy, he is comparing Turkey to the obnoxious King Sisyphus, justly punished; or Turkey’s attempts to join the EU to the task of rolling the boulder uphill. In the interview, the learned professor claimed that he had taken great pains to avoid seeming biased in Turkey’s favour, so it may, indeed, be the former.
Nevertheless, I checked out the other part of the title, and it’s true: Turkey did, in fact, first apply to what was then the EEC (European Economic Community) for associate membership in July 1958. Almost 30 years later, in April 1987, after making little appreciable progress, the Turks applied for formal membership into what was now the European Community. Since then, the occasional crumb has been thrown their way. In 1995, for example, a customs union agreement was signed between the EU and Turkey. One assumes, the thinking behind this is to keep them nibbling at the hook – to keep them believing that acceptance is just around the corner, if they’ll only try a little harder.
You can understand why Europe would want to do that. Turkey has been a member of NATO since its inception, and has always been a major contributor to its military forces. The US maintains at least one important air force base on the Turkish mainland, and makes it clear to all and sundry that Turkey is an important ‘friend’. Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) in 1973. Coming straight out and telling them to get lost is clearly out of the question.
On the other hand, to accede to the EU, Turkey must first successfully complete negotiations with the European Commission on each of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the total body of EU law. Afterwards, the member states must unanimously agree on granting Turkey membership to the European Union. And the day that happens, a squadron of flying pigs will land at Istanbul International Airport, and be given an official welcome.
Call me a cynic, but I can’t see either event happening. Whatever misgivings Europe has about Turkey’s political and social fabric, it is clear that, when they want to accept a country into their fold, they do so, in the stated belief that desirable change is more likely to take place once that country has become a member. One of the major sticking points in Turkey’s on-going negotiations for membership is the Cyprus situation. In 2004, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, submitted a plan for the reunification of the island. The plan was supported by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, but rejected by the Greeks. Shortly thereafter, the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus was admitted to membership of the EU.
I can’t escape the feeling that the antics of Western leaders re Turkey’s application for EU membership are simply a variation of the ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine. The UK Prime Minister and the US President, and the occasional other high profile politico, regularly go public with statements about the desirability of admitting Turkey. However, for my money, I’d give more credence to the words of French President Sarkozy, and German Chancellor Merkel, both of whom have made it abundantly clear that they see no place for Turkey in the European Union.
Would it be surprising, then, if Turkey began to take an increasingly independent stance on international affairs; and to seek economic and strategic alliances elsewhere?