Turkey's bid to join the EU offers Europe the choice of embracing its internal diversity or resorting to an insular idea of itself.
Drowned out by the acclamation for the Obama victory last week, the European commission quietly released its progress report on Turkish accession to the EU. While it welcomed Turkey's economic performance and the progress it had made strengthening its legal system, the commission's message was that there was a lot done but a lot still to do.
The road towards Turkish membership is long and rocky but I believe that Turkey is central to the future development of the EU. The eventual decision to accept or reject Turkey will have significant ramifications for the type of organisation it will become.
Put crudely, Turkish membership will signify a choice for Europe between becoming an outward-looking union at peace with its internal diversity that prioritises the economic and security needs of its members, or an insular, almost parochial grouping, searching for an imagined cultural homogeneity. This is why the Foreign Policy Centre has released a new pamphlet to coincide with the report arguing that we have to clearly lay out the practical case that both the EU and Turkey would be more prosperous and secure if accession is successful.
Turkish membership is often described as a "win-win" situation for the EU and Turkey but it is clear that victory will be hard fought. The majority of European public opinion opposes Turkish membership and leading politicians in member states including France, Germany and Austria have publicly stated that they do not see Turkey as a future member and have pushed for a nebulous "privileged partnership". Turkish support for membership has also waned in recent years due to the sluggish progress of the accession process and the opposition of some EU leaders.
The challenge set before advocates of Turkish membership then, is to transform a climate of cynicism and opposition to ensure membership is granted once Turkey meets the strict criteria required for entry.
Prosperity and security form the twin pillars of the case for Turkish membership. Turkey has been at the bedrock of European security since the cold war, joining Nato in 1952 and guarding Europe's south-eastern flank against the former Soviet Union. Today it sits at the gateway to the Middle East, the Caucasus and central Asia, a key strategic player in all three regions. Turkey can play a critical role in our energy security, where it is the key alternative transit route to Russia for Caspian oil and gas and the swiftest route for Iraqi crude.
The key dynamics of the economic relationship between Turkey and the EU are clear. The EU is the market for 56% of Turkish exports, ten times that of any other export destination, while Turkey is the EU's fifth largest export market. European firms annually invest over €3bn in Turkey. After economic setbacks in 1994 and at the turn of the millennium, Turkey has grown at an average annual rate of 6.8%. According to the World Bank, eventual Turkish membership should boost its GDP per capita growth by 1.5% per year, and allow it to expand as a market for European goods.
There remain significant political challenges that Turkey must face up to if it is to be ready for membership. This summer prosecutors in Ankara came within a whisker of removing the current Justice and Development (AKP) government on charges of undermining the secular state that included the decision to allow women to wear the hijab in universities. Had it succeeded, it would have dealt a hammer-blow to hopes of Turkish membership in the foreseeable future. Other outstanding issues include restrictions on freedom of speech, the future of Cyprus and the challenges faced by the Kurdish community over language rights and identity. These issues must be fully resolved prior to Turkish membership, but in these and the other main challenges Turkey faces, the rigorous criteria provided by the EU accession process act as an immense force for change.
At its core, the argument must be that if Turkey succeeds in fully implementing the EU's accession criteria, the toughest given to any candidate country, it will have earned the right to join the EU. If Turkey has undergone the massive economic, political, social and legal transformation required, the denial of its right to join would be an affront to the principles of fairness that must underpin the EU and could lead a spurned Turkey to re-orientate itself away from the West, forming new alliances in the Middle East and central Asia to the detriment of Europe.
Although Turkey has already benefited from economic and political reforms necessary for accession to take place, the pace of change needs to increase, improving the quality of life in Turkey, and strengthening support for membership, both among Turks and EU citizens. Turkey must also reach out to EU citizens with effective public diplomacy, busting myths and raising awareness of Turkey as a modern European society with deep roots in the continent's history. These steps must be reciprocated within the EU through cultural exchange and the use of economic links to break down barriers.
The European business community has an important role to play in standing up for Turkey and this must include leadership at the European level.
European companies operating in Turkey should take the lead in educating their workforces about the country and show the benefits that closer co-operation with it can bring. Similarly Europe's trade unions can play a proactive role in informing their members and dampening fears over Turkish migration damaging employment opportunities.
Failure to grant Turkish accession would be one of the greatest strategic mistakes the EU could inflict upon itself, one that would be hugely harmful to business and undermine European prosperity and security. The path to accession is challenging for both the EU and Turkey, but advocates of an open and progressive Europe need to stand up and make the case that it is a challenge that we must not fail to meet.