The Agenda

A Fascinating Turco-German Reversal

Earlier this month, Daniel Steinvorth and Bernhard Zand published a fascinating profile of Turkey under Erdogan. Naturally, the article spent a great deal of time on Turkey’s economic boom, which has led to a palpable increase in living standards. One has to wonder if Turkish growth is sustainable, a question The Economist touched on in a recent briefing:

A splurge of consumer spending combined with a big inflow of foreign capital has widened the current-account deficit to a gaping 8% of GDP (see chart). Were that foreign money suddenly to dry up, Turkey could easily find itself heading into a bust once again. Fiscal policy should have been tightened more and sooner. And far more needs to be done to liberalise heavily regulated labour and product markets. In the rich-country OECD club, Turkey ranks bottom on both scores. Unemployment remains high, especially in the east and among young people, and the rate of female participation in the workforce has declined.

Yet Turkish growth has been impressive all the same, particularly when compared to the decade that preceded the AK party’s first victory in 2002. As Steinvorth and Zand highlight in their article, one sign of Turkish success has been a modest “brain gain”:

Gone are the days when the only people flocking to the Bosporus were tea pickers from the Black Sea and refugees from the troubled Kurdish regions. Europeans and Americans have also discovered “Istancool,” the most modern city in the Islamic world, a city that never sleeps. Among the new arrivals are people whose parents and grandparents once emigrated to faraway Germany in search of a better life. Germans of Turkish descent, derided in Turkey as “Almancilar” (literally “Germanyers”), are discovering that the city is much more dynamic than anything they could find in Germany.

One of these children of guest workers is Nese Stegemann, 43, a doctor specializing in orthopedics and surgery, who is married to a German and characterizes herself as “about as German as it gets.” When she flew to Istanbul with her family two years ago, Stegemann was overwhelmed by the wealth of cultural contrasts, the galleries, exhibitions, designer outlets, mosques and bazaars. She was offered a job in a private hospital. She accepted, and today she earns more than she did at home in Hanover.

Stegemann is just one of thousands. The number of Turkish-Germans returning to the country of their forefathers has long outnumbered the number of Turks heading to Germany. In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, they totaled 40,000. Many of them are highly qualified and extremely well adjusted to the globalized world, in which being rooted in two cultures is seen as a career bonus.

Though I’m sure it’s difficult to find hard numbers on this phenomenon, it suggests that European anxieties about Turkish migration might be misplaced:

Many Europeans see the Turks as an alien people who have far too many children. But is the cliché of the “demographic bomb,” one of the favored arguments of those who oppose Turkey joining the EU, even true anymore? Turkey, unlike Europe’s aging societies, has a very healthy population pyramid resembling that of the United States or Canada. In recent years, the birthrate has declined to 2.1 children per woman.

This is a development that results from growing affluence and improved education levels. Demographers even predict a population decline in Turkey starting in 2030, a prospect that prompted Prime Minister Erdogan to say that every Turkish woman ought to have at least three children in the future. But Turkish women have no intention of complying with his wishes.

Economically speaking, Turkey doesn’t even need a high birthrate. The average age is currently 29 (compared to 43 in Germany), and roughly 700,000 university graduates enter the job market every year. Turkey has almost exactly the rate of replenishment it needs for stable economic growth: not too low and not too high. At any rate, the overpopulation scenarios of anxious Europeans are greatly exaggerated.

If Turkey does manage to reform its internal market and foster an entrepreneurial culture, it is easy to imagine the country joining the ranks of the world’s great powers, at least until its demographic dividend evaporates. As Turkish power increases, it will be interesting to see how the country’s foreign policy profile changes, and whether the Turks will clash with or accommodate Iran, the Saudis, and the new Egypt. More immediately, Erdogan does seem to be tilting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, setting the stage for an interesting few months.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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