Cem Kozlu grew up in Kalamis, back when it was just a little village on the water in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city. “Now,” he says, “it’s filled with skyscrapers.” When he was a child, Istanbul held only about a million people. Today the population is 12 million. He’s rarely nostalgic, though. Sure, he says, some of the changes have been negative—the sense of community isn’t as strong as it once was. But the infrastructure is better. Poverty has been eradicated. Public transportation is accessible and efficient.
And as Istanbul goes, so goes Turkey. Kozlu has had an inside view of his country’s ascent, with a career encompassing everything from serving as a member of Turkish Parliament to a stint as CEO of Turkish Airlines to his current role as a regional consultant for Coca-Cola. The experiences have armed him with plenty of ready data: foreign investment in Turkey, he says, typically totaled about $1 billion annually in the 1990s; a decade later, it was over $10 billion. Fifteen years ago, the country’s per capita income hovered around $3,500. Today it is near $11,000. There were 23 universities in the country in the 1990s, all but one state-run. Today there are 180—equal to the number of McDonald’s restaurants in the country—and almost 70 are private.
And yet, despite all its growth, Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union has been stalled for decades. There are myriad reasons offered for why Turkey has been kept at bay: Some say the size of the country would overwhelm the EU’s representative parliament. Some fear that it would lead to mass migration from Turkey to established EU countries. Others—and this is usually left unsaid—don’t like the idea of a majority Muslim country like Turkey joining the mostly Christian EU. The end result has been a half-century-long courtship with very little progress to show for it.
But Kozlu, who received a Denison Alumni Citation in 1988, sees a way forward, and he wrote about it back in 2011 in his book, A Turkey That Can Say No to Europe. Turkey and the EU member countries must bring all of these issues out in the open and work to solve them, rather than using them as rationale for kicking the can down the road—frustrating Turkey, and perhaps pushing the country further away from the West. Already, popular support in Turkey for joining the EU has fallen to 44 percent from 75 percent just a decade ago, and the Turkish prime minister has publicly suggested that he’d consider forgoing the EU and joining its Eurasian equivalent, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which includes Russia and China.
Kozlu hopes that doesn’t happen. He still sees great value in EU membership, and not just because of the trade benefits or the potential for new infrastructure investments. “The major value of being a member of the EU is in helping grow the Turkish democratic system,” says Kozlu. “That’s more important than the economic aspect.” The EU, above all, is a peace project, he says—one powerful enough to bring together Germany and France, once bitter historic enemies. And the member countries have long traditions of stressing factors like democratic values and personal freedoms. “Turkey is a relatively young democracy,” Kozlu says. “So it is important for it to be associated with these kinds of good neighbors.”
In the end, Kozlu says, keeping Turkey out of the EU doesn’t just punish Turks. “I feel that Europeans are doing their next generations a disservice. Turkey is a democratic Muslim nation, and joining a majority Christian community would be a great example of cultural harmony.” It’s just the kind of model, he says, that the world really needs right now.