The European Union is hosting a reconstruction conference in Brussels on March 20 to focus on the aftermath of Turkey’s devastating February 6 earthquakes, which killed more than 50,000, including 6,000 in neighboring Syria.
The conference will bring together representatives from EU countries, other major world economies and international financial institutions.
This comes only a few days after the European Parliament, supposedly deep in structural reform mode after recent scandals, held its own conference to focus attention on the massive earthquake reconstruction requirements.
While Turkey’s GDP grew by 5.6 percent in 2022, the country’s inflation-ridden economy is now projected to grow in 2023 at 2.0-2.5 percent less than in pre-quake GDP estimates. Early World Bank estimates place the quakes’ physical damage at equivalent to 4 percent of Turkey’s GDP but have since been adjusted upward to 9 percent for 2023.
Assessments of the funding needed for reconstruction are still in the early phases, but at least $45-$50 billion will be needed to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stated plans to complete reconstruction of 400,000 residences within a year for the approximately 1.5 million left homeless by the quakes, a figure that does not include the large refugee population currently in Turkey.
The actual objective will obviously require much higher amounts, not to mention an adjustment of the impossible one-year target. Erdogan’s government has set up a special off budget mechanism to handle reconstruction requirements without utilizing standard parliamentary budget reviews.
Delegations are en route to Brussels. Our hope is that whatever arrangements are worked out guarantee that after international reconstruction aid begins to flow, Turkey will undertake to become a positive regional force, meaning becoming a good neighbor. This will require sweeping changes in the foreign and defense policies of pre-earthquake Turkey, but there is little evidence of this so far.
To achieve this result, which is clearly a win-win for all involved, it makes little sense to take final decisions on medium- and long-term reconstruction packages until Turkey’s May 14-28 election cycle is completed. Only then will donors have a sense of what kind of Turkey their taxpayer funded assistance monies will be used to reconstruct.
The list of Western requests to Ankara is long, but one item that is critical in guaranteeing that Turkey becomes a good neighbor would be a reduction of its defense spending and shifting a substantial amount of those resources into reconstruction.
In view of complicated negotiations over NATO expansion, which Ankara is holding up, Western policymakers may be afraid to state their views/demands publicly, but the reconstruction conference provides the ideal mechanism to convince Turkey to cut its defense expenditures from current levels of around 2.06 percent of GDP (2021 data) to something lower.
It is not a rhetorical question to ask what use Turkey could have for its new drone carrying aircraft carrier when so much of its population is living in tents and container cities, except possibly as a cargo transport or temporary residence.
Western taxpayers should demand their assistance for reconstruction of Turkey’s devastated southeast provinces not be used to subsidize continued military adventurism on the part of Erdogan’s government.
It’s time to get creative about aid conditionality, perhaps incentivizing Ankara with matching reconstruction grants for every lira shifted out of the defense budget or at least away from new military hardware procurement that threatens regional stability.
Late note: The EU announced the conference generated donor pledges of €7.0 billion, compared to the cost of reconstructing destroyed housing now estimated by Turkey at close to €95 billion, almost double earlier figures. Syria was not invited to the conference, reconstruction costs there are estimated to be at least €13 billion; the EU is currently providing only humanitarian assistance.