WASHINGTON—It is tempting to look at the trajectories of Greece and Turkey — two neighbors bound by a history of competition — and conclude that gaining European Union membership hurt Greece as much as not gaining it helped Turkey. Greece entered the European Communities in 1981, and joined the euro after the Maastricht Treaty. It is now Europe’s weakest economy, and it might not be able to keep the common currency. Turkey, on the other hand, has sought and been denied EU membership since the 1960s, but its economy is now more dynamic than most in Europe, and its profile as a regional actor has risen in recent years while the EU’s is said to be declining.
But while it appears possible to argue that EU membership ruined Greece and non-membership saved Turkey, this conclusion is as incorrect as it is intriguing. Above all, it fails to provide a reliable narrative to guide future international decisions. In truth, both countries need more involvement with Europe, now probably more than ever. International stakeholders should therefore be careful about insinuating — as some political forces in both countries have done — that the future may be brighter without the European Union.
Greece’s early accession to the EU and the euro induced a relaxed attitude toward further reform. But its failures would likely have been much bigger had it never attained EU membership. Reforms in the 1990s helped reduce Greece’s oversized state, showing the transformative potential of integration. Greece also attained some economic diversification thanks to EU-driven reforms. Many forget that issues that concern Turkey — including its identity as a Western state — were just as relevant for Greece until its EU accession (a NATO member since 1952 like Turkey, Greece was cut across divisions between Orthodox “traditionalists” and Westernizers during the Cold War). A sovereignty-conscious country in an unstable region, Greece maintained high defense budgets despite de-securitization through Europeanization (Greek-Turkish tensions attenuated as both got closer to the EU). That bloated its debt and mitigated efforts to downsize its public sector. But Greece’s military expenditures would have been higher had it been denied the full benefits of the European peace. In short, EU integration brought advantages, although it is painfully clear that they were not enough.
Now Greece needs the European project more than ever. The country’s difficulties are only partly related to the recent EU-imposed austerity. The deeper cause remains problems with Greek competitiveness that European integration may help solve. In contrast to the arguments of Greek nationalists, it is the European project’s weakness — not its overbearing presence — that has cost Greece dearly. By the same token, Greece’s exit from the common currency would be as much a failure for Greeks as a defeat for the EU as a transformative agent. It is therefore encouraging that under dire circumstances, the Greek people voted for the European project last month and that, despite bilateral divergences, German leaders have been outspoken about the need to keep Greece in.
On the other side of the Aegean, Ankara seems to be looking at the unfolding Greek tragedy with the relief of those who missed a ship that sank. There is some truth to the notion that the promise of EU membership meant that Turks have worked harder than some of their neighbors to keep their economy competitive. But this is also implicit recognition that the EU perspective worked. The Customs Union with the EU in the mid-1990s triggered reforms that were followed by those undertaken to start accession talks that moved Turkey toward democratization. In fact, democratic consolidation has become less clear a prospect after the most recent stalemate on EU accession. Tendencies that had characterized the Kemalist era — such as centralization and tutelage — have resurfaced in the current situation of protracted political stability without the external pressure coming from EU engagement.
As counterintuitive as it may seem at a time of Turkey’s rise and the EU’s decline, the so-called New Turkey remains an experiment that requires Europe for its fulfillment. As Ankara aspires to Middle Eastern leadership, its history of Western engagement should remind it of the difficulties it will have in dealing with a turbulent Arab world. Despite growing diversification, Turkey is and will remain a part of the larger European economy. Turkey also has a clear interest in the stability, democratization, and economic integration of southeastern Europe, from the Balkans to the Caucasus, which is taking place through Europeanization.
Turkish reformers should therefore take advantage of the European crisis and the fluidity of EU balances to provide positive inputs to debates on the EU’s future, a discussion on which Turkey’s future still depends. As big as they have been, the EU’s recent failures should not lead to questions about the necessity of the European project. Rather, they should spur a serious discussion on what type of EU governance and leadership European countries need. Instead of feeding Euro skepticism, the contrasting tales of Greece and Turkey should remind leaders in both countries and in the EU of the lasting relevance of a common European future.
Emiliano Alessandri is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.