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Turkey belongs in the EU family

Interview - February 12, 2015

A decade after first opening formal talks on European Union accession, Turkey has reinvigorated its application for EU membership with the launch of phase II of its Nation Action Plan. Turkey’s Ambassador to France, H.E. Hakki Akil, explains how his nation has been able to achieve robust growth amid regional and international turmoil, and declares that Turkey is now so strong economically that it would be a significant net contributor to the EU, should its application be accepted.


Turkey is developing rapidly; few people know that it has exceeded the development rate of China. With terrorism and instability in neighboring Syria, it is easy to overlook Turkey’s immense progress. I would like to start by inviting you to state how you think your country should be portrayed on the world stage.

I always say that Turkey has established stability in the region. Despite all the problems and wars that surround Turkey, we have managed to achieve strong economic growth and to maintain political stability, which is not easy when you are surrounded by fire. We should start from that premise.

Since the arrival in government of the AKP in 2002, there have been many political and democratic reforms in Turkey, as well as structural reforms, in the form of privatization and the establishment of regulators for sectors such as telecoms and banking.

Thanks to all these reforms – both political and economic – Turkey has more than tripled its GDP in 12 years. In 2002 Turkey’s GDP was $230 billion, and we increased this to $820 billion in 2013, which is huge, especially when considering that 2008 and 2009 were years of crisis in the global economy. Our exports have increased from $32 billion to $156 billion. Income per capita rose from $3,500 to $11,000.

I believe that the start of negotiations with the European Union has also been a driving force in this economic boom, because, as you know, Turkey needs foreign capital for its growth. After the start of negotiations with the EU, there was a considerable flow of foreign investment into Turkey. Until 2002, the total sum of foreign investment throughout the existence of the Republic, from 1923 until 2002, was around $20 billion. From 2002 to 2013, the volume of foreign investment was $130 billion. It is clear that the start of negotiations played a substantial role in this.

Political reforms have also contributed significantly to this flow of foreign capital, because investors will never take risks if there is not a rule-based system in place, which is the rule of law.

Tourism has experienced a boom. Turkey has become the world’s sixth largest tourist destination with 41 million tourists arriving last year. The numbers increase every year.

Turkey has opened about 30 new embassies. Turkish Airlines flies to Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Today Turkish Airlines flies to 108 different countries, which is more than any other airline. This is quite remarkable.

All this shows the new vision of Turkey; the vision of opening up to the world.  

We have also significantly diversified our markets. Before the years of the global financial crisis, when our exports were value at around $70 billion, 56% went to the European Union market. Today that figure has dropped to 36%, which equates to $156 billion. Thanks to this, our economy has managed to weather the crisis that the Eurozone went through.

Where are these new markets? Africa has now become a strategic location for Turkey. We now have embassies in almost all African countries, and Turkish Airlines is the only company that flies to all African capitals. We have also expanded into South America and Southeast Asia. Of course, we continue to grow our other traditional markets in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia; and also the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine.

Let me stress: Turkey has done all this against the backdrop of the Iraq War and turmoil all across our region. To the north, you know the problems we have had with the Ukrainian crisis; instability continues in the Caucasus. Yet despite all this volatility, Turkey has been able to achieve substantial economic growth, and to maintain political stability, because the government of the ruling AKP won four elections in a row.

In this economic boom, we should not forget that the ratio of public debt to GDP has fallen from around 80% to 36%. And by 2017 we expect to reach 26%. Our development is ongoing. We have also had a very strict public finances policy. Today the budget deficit is only 1.1%.

That is better than France…

Much better! Every year, our Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Ali Babacan, and his team, prepare a medium-term plan which sets out the economic variables for the following three years. The figures in this so-called medium-term plan are revised if necessary. But when we set certain goals, we also supply the financial means to achieve them. We do not dream up fictional figures; we set realistic targets backed by the necessary means for funding. By 2017, we will even have a budget surplus with our medium-term plan. There will be no budget deficit, and inflation will be around 5%. In 2002 the rate of inflation was 70%. We went from 70% to single-digit inflation. That is an incredible achievement. It is not an exaggeration to talk about an economic miracle during that period.

The unemployment rate currently hovers between 9%-10%. How has the environment for job creation and income distribution changed over recent years?

We have greatly improved income distribution in the country. In 2002, 4% of the population had an income of less than $2 per day. Today that is no longer the case. The proportion of the population receiving less than $4 per day was 30% in 2002. Today it is around 2%: all this shows the progress made in the fight against poverty.

Since 2009, we have created 6 million jobs in Turkey. Only last year we created 1.2 million jobs. These figures are higher than all the jobs created in EU countries in this period

Speaking of the EU, what are your hopes for Phase II of Turkey’s National Action Plan for EU Accession?

First of all, European Union accession is a strategic choice for Turkey, because Turkey is in Europe. We always say, and our President has said it too: You cannot write the history of Turkey without Europe, or the history of Europe without Turkey.

The momentum for European Union accession is something else. We’ll have to wait and see. The important thing is to continue the process in a decisive manner, and continue the alignment of Turkish legislation with EU standards. As you know, the Greek Cypriots are blocking eight chapters. France, at the time of President Sarkozy, blocked five chapters.

You have the support of Germany and England…

Yes. The important thing for us, despite this Greek Cypriot opposition, is that we unblock those chapters singlehandedly by ourselves. We must do our homework as if the chapters have been unblocked and try to harmonize our legislation on our own, so that we may be ready when the time comes. The important thing is to keep the train on track and proceed to the final phase. Later, once everything is completed, it will be up to the Turkish people and Europeans to decide whether they will accept our membership or not.

Economically speaking, you are light years ahead of Romania and Bulgaria, for example…     

Today, if Turkey joins the EU, it will be a strong contributor. We will contribute much more than we will receive from the European Union. But as I said, in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Turkey’s ambition was to be able to benefit from the financial support of the European Union for its economic development. Today it is a political and strategic choice.

Turkey is currently facing the looming threat of being excluded from the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the USA. How will this affect Turkey?

Turkey wants to be part of this trade agreement because, firstly, we have a customs union with the European Union, and secondly, it will also contribute significantly to the further growth of the Turkish economy. If Turkey is included in this agreement, we will be forced to harmonize our legislation in agriculture and other fields that are currently not in line with EU standards, so it will give us a new boost for the modernization of our economy. This is why it is so important for us.

Some might say it is even more important than EU accession…

One is economic, the other is political. Our priority is not to reap economic benefits from the European Union, but to be accepted as part of the family to which we have belonged for centuries.