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EU leaders should not fear a 'Turkish invasion of Europe'

Just 13 per cent of Turkey’s adult population expressed a desire to migrate, lower than many other countries.

New Statesman
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule (R) and Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis give a joint press conference in Ankara on May 17, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

With a year to go until the people of Romania and Bulgaria gain free movement across the EU, familiar concerns have already been raised about the possibility of uncontrolled immigration into the UK and the consequences this could have on the housing and labour markets.

Stoking up such fears has long accompanied talks of EU expansion to Eastern and Southern Europe nations. But the economic balance of power in Europe has shifted, and European leaders need to take a more sensible view of migration. Nowhere is this more the case than with Turkey, which would become the EU’s most easterly and second most populous nation. Accession talks with Turkey began in October 2005 but have stalled, primarily due to opposition in Germany and France.

While there are concerns over the Cyprus issue and the Turkish justice system, ‘freedom of movement for workers’ remains one of the most intractable barriers to Turkish accession, particularly for Germany and France. Turkey’s history as a major source of immigration into Europe since the 1960s, creating visible and sizeable Turkish minorities, has long held back its ambitions to join the EU. If Turkey joins, the fear is that millions of Turks will migrate to Europe, overwhelming local labour markets and exacerbating cultural tensions.

Yet analysis of Gallup World Poll data on migration prospects show there is little basis for this fear. While the desire to migrate is always higher than actual migration rates, comparing data across different countries helps us understand patterns in mobility routes and intensity today and in the future. The findings, which I presented last month as chair of the Turkish Migration in Europe Conference at Regent’s College London, allow us to evaluate the notion of a ‘Turkish invasion of Europe’ following its accession to the EU.

The data showed that around 630 million individuals reported a desire to move to another country, with about 7.6 per cent of the world’s adult population saying they would like to migrate within a year, and about 3 per cent already preparing – so, applying for visas and booking travel.

Comparing Turkish migration attitudes in relation to other nations, we see that 13 per cent of Turkey’s adult population expressed a desire to migrate, lower than popular immigration destinations like Germany (18 per cent), France (19 per cent) and the UK (30 per cent). Turkey’s figure is also lower than the 16 per cent among Southern and Eastern European neighbours. Desire to migrate is relatively high in the troubled countries in Turkey’s neighbourhood: Iraq (16 per cent), Syria (27 per cent) and Iran (15 per cent). Meanwhile, other emerging market economies like Brazil and Russia have reported similar rates to Turkey: both 13 per cent.

Turkey’s record of economic progress and relative political stability in the last decade are key reasons for this shift. Turkey is rapidly becoming a destination country for thousands coming from Africa, Asia and Middle East, as a beacon of stability for the region. Continuing economic crisis in Europe and Turkey’s steady growth, as well as discrimination in some cases, has paved the way for further migration from Europe to Turkey, including many second and third generation Turkish minority members arriving from Germany. Indeed, in the last decade the net Turkish migration to Germany has been negative.

Although it is clear that Turkey is likely to produce some more outward migration, all of her European neighbours are more likely to generate more migrants in the near future. Turkey can already be considered as an immigration destination, and this trend is likely to continue.

With the launch of the "positive agenda" between Turkey and the EU in May last year, and the EU Commission's report in October which called on Turkey to do more to progress its membership bid, 2013 promises to be an important year for Turkey’s European ambitions. Its path to the EU is unlikely to be straightforward, with many barriers still to be crossed, and many politicians in influential nations opposed to its membership. Yet the shift in migration trends is great reason for optimism – showing how the nation’s rapid economic growth is making it increasingly plausible for these barriers to be overcome.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is director of Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies, Regent’s College