© Fatih Saribas / Reuters - MPC Journal - The Quandary of Turkey’s EU Bid
© Photo: Fatih Saribas / Reuters

Turkey – a de facto NATO-EuroMed member – moved a step closer in its bid to join the European Union after its government announced fresh talks with the 28-member bloc. The talks will focus on economic and monetary policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel previously said that she is opposed to Turkey becoming a member of the EU but has promoted talks, calling Turkish membership an “open-ended issue”. Other European leaders may not be overwhelmingly in favour of Ankara’s membership bid as Turkey borders a number of conflict zones, specifically Iraq and Syria, and while oppressing the Kurds, is fighting a Kurdish insurgency waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s south-eastern regions. Although Turkey’s relationship with European integration goes back to the late 1950s, it is not necessary to look far in the past to realize there is a much more complicated picture replete with change throughout the last decade.

Turkey’s Quest for Joining the EU

Turkey is on Europe’s edge. In the last decade, the country has struggled with whether to join the European Union (EU) or focus its diplomatic efforts elsewhere. During this period, Turkish public opinion has swung back and forth. While a slim margin currently favours EU membership, both elite opinion and public sentiment remains volatile, particularly with so much changing within Turkey itself. This is because Turkey’s European dilemma is no longer one of mere foreign policy but also concerns the future shape of Turkey itself. In the early years of Turkey’s relations with the project of European integration, the Turkish elite sought membership as the next stage in Turkey’s development and westernization. At the time, the European Community was considered the economic wing of the NATO.


Turkey expected that joining another western institution would bolster its efforts at being/becoming western. Second, the economic dimension of membership was (and remains) of enormous significance, leading to the signing of a Customs Agreement that went into effect in 1995. Third, supporters of EU membership were keen to replicate the process of rapid development in Turkey that other candidates and EU members went through when preparing for and after joining the Union.

Of these three, the symbolic importance of locating the country in the West cannot be underestimated. Contrary to popular representations, Turkey’s westernization was never a mere lifestyle choice. Being part of the West was also a strategy to avoid being on the margins of the world political and economic system. Such concerns are rooted in a particular memory of the final days of the Ottoman Empire that traumatized Turkey’s elite – the memory of Anatolia turned into a backwater of the world economic system and pushed to the brink of dismemberment. These concerns have been a driving force behind the project of westernization throughout the republican era.

On the surface, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, attempts to come off as a progressive and an enthusiastic proponent of integrating with Europe. The former premier, Abdullah Gül, has been a leading supporter of his nation’s seemingly perpetual EU membership bid. The ruling political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has implemented several reforms to improve Turkey’s résumé in the EU enlargement office.

Europe seems content to leave it at that when it comes to doing business with Turkey—particularly business that involves receiving energy via Turkey. But you don’t have to look far to see a more complicated picture.

The AKP’s Role

The AKP has an Islamist pedigree and maintains pan-Islamic ties throughout the region. Flush with an electoral victory in 2015 that made it the biggest party in the Turkish parliament, the AKP is increasingly brushing the nation’s secularists aside. It has punished journalists critical of the party. It has finagled control of prominent media companies into the hands of AKP-loyal businessmen. It has jailed opponents based on information obtained through dubiously intercepted phone calls and e-mails. It has loosened regulations on religious schools—regulations intended to prevent Islamist indoctrination. It is imposing a more conservative morality. In several ways, the ruling party has relaxed the nation’s constitutionally strict separation of religion and politics. Critics accuse it of inching the nation toward Islamic sharia law.

The EU membership requires countries to internalize democratic principles that are beyond the electoral democracies. Applying for the EU membership, the candidate countries voluntarily put themselves under an obligation to establish democracy to a full extent , which in return entails respecting human rights and freedoms.

EU Entry Criteria

Turkey’s accession process to the EU is in limbo: Only 14 of the 33 chapters of the acquis that require negotiations have been opened in ten years (the last one in November 2013) and just one provisionally closed. The main stumbling block is Turkey’s failure to implement the 2005 Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement and extend its customs union with the EU by opening its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. As a result, the EU suspended at the end of 2006 the opening of eight chapters related to the Customs Union and announced that no more chapters would be provisionally closed until Turkey had fulfilled its commitment. France and Cyprus have unilaterally blocked other chapters.

The Cyprus Connection

Although it is not part of the EU accession, Mustafa Akıncin, the president of Northern Cyprus, raised hopes for reunification of Cyprus, divided since Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the island. While a window of opportunity has opened in Cyprus, the one provided in 2013 by a fragile ceasefire between the Turkish state and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), following a brutal dirty war of 28 years that killed at least 40,000 people, was closed in July with a renewal of violence on both sides.

The best way to keep Turkey on board, improve its flawed democracy and reinvigorate its EU negotiations would be to open the two chapters on judicial and fundamental rights and on justice, security and freedoms, core areas blocked by Cyprus since 2009.

Geopolitical Factors

Geopolitical location of Turkey between the Balkans, West Asia, and Africa might contribute to the EU in gaining leverage in the region. Thereby, the EU can also secure energy transfer areas as well as independent energy market apart from Russia’s. While accepting a Muslim country may, yet arguably, help the dissemination of a moderate version of Islam in other countries, Turkey’s military capacity remains significant in the development of EU’s defence and security systems.

Although Turkey’s relationship with European integration goes back to the late 1950s, the nature of this relationship began to change in the last decade. In 1999, the EU granted Turkey candidate country status. In the run up to and the aftermath of this decision, Turkey’s Europeanization gained pace. The 2001 economic crisis created an opening not only for the financial and economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund but also the political reforms demanded by the EU. During this period, Turkey amended its constitution several times to improve human rights, strengthen the rule of law, and restructure democratic institutions. Although problems with implementation remain lingering, the prevailing view, at least in Turkey, is that Turkey has come a long way toward meeting European standards.

The Old Europe & Turkey

Germany and France had principal institutional objections regarding Turkey’s accession into the European Union. The objection rests on the grounds that any country interested in joining the EU should unconditionally harmonize with EU values and principles and the acquis communautaire, effectively uphold fundamental principles, such as the rule of law, democracy, respect of international humanitarian law, the human rights declarations, minority rights, political asylum rights and civil liberties.

Democratic political stability and financial restructuring, the modernization of public administration and regulation of social and economic competition policies, constitute additional basic requirements. These are generally regarded among EU institutions and member states to constitute the foundations of democratic and sound political institutions and of a competitively functioning free market economy.

Another key issue whose significance can hardly be exaggerated, and one of grave concern, mainly for Germany and France but also for other EU member-states, is demography: The high rate of population growth in Turkey and an expected mass migration movement of Turkish labour force top the list. It is argued that the implications for the future national identity of individual EU countries, as well as for internal EU political balance and decision-making process will be significant.

The former Socialist German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, depicted these concerns in his book “Germany after the Cold War and Europe”, stressing that they are embedded in Franco-German political culture. Regarding the first issue of the rapid Turkish population growth, he maintains that it is or could soon become “threatening” to EU national and community balances. Simply put, Turkey is not any accession state candidate, but one, which could become the largest state within the EU. In 2050, Turkey will probably have twice the population of Germany and France combined.

As a result, the voting power (that is based on the member country’s population) of Turkey in various EU institutions, like the European Parliament, will be substantially larger than that of Germany and France, and thus, Turkey will be able to greatly influence and in some cases control or determine the decision making mechanisms of the EU. Currently Germany and France are the countries with the greater voting power within the EU.

The second substantial fear of the German and French elites and indeed the public at large concerns the crucial issue of free movement of workers and other social groups between EU members. If Turkey joins the EU, millions of Turkish workers would be able to freely move into European cities. Free movement of labour is a defining characteristic of integration, an EU right and privilege from which no member country could be excluded from.

In several EU member states, there appears to be a stark contrast between the opinion of the political establishment on Turkey’s membership of the Union and that of the broad public. For some, but clearly not all, current member states, Turkey represents a challenging but huge potential. For many of these states’ citizens, however, Turkey appears as a country too big, too poor, too distant and too Muslim. Although public opinion surveys on Turkey joining the EU are still few across Europe, the general understanding appears to be that any possible referendum on the issue would most likely fail in all the major EU member states. The leaders of the member states will have to reach a unanimous decision. While a few national governments have already declared their respective positions on the Turkish bid, there are still many—especially smaller—member states which appear to be marking time, seemingly waiting for the major powers to spell out and align their stance first.

Economic Factors

The pugnacious Turkish EU Minister, Egemen Bagis, has said opening chapters is less important than opening minds. Turks contrast their own economic vigour with a growth matching China’s to the woes of the Eurozone. Turks claim that they need the EU less than the EU needs Turkey.

The writer and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk said recently that the hearts of Turkish Europhiles had been broken by the reluctance to welcome Turkey into the EU club.

EU officials demand that Turkey could, and should, do more to break the impasse over Cyprus, and to improve its human rights record. The oppression of minorities and systematic otherisation of the Kurdish factions within and outside the borders of the nation-state of Turkey remain lingering.

Copenhagen Versus Maastricht Criteria

It has been a rather popular discussion for decades. Is the European Union a geographic zone or an area of norms and values? With the Copenhagen criteria, the EU partly provided an answer to that question by setting a web of values and norms as the sine qua non (absolute requirements) of eligibility for membership. The Maastricht criteria, on the other hand, set economic and administrative standards required for a common economy and to some degree a monetary union.

While Maastricht criteria might be achieved during the period of accession negotiations, the Copenhagen criteria of democratic governance, respect of norms and values of democracy are absolute conditions any candidate state must possess at a satisfactory level before it can be eligible for accession talks. It is not a welcome development but as was seen in Europe’s last crisis, countries might, because of local political failures and political greed, try to make the best use of confidence entrusted to them and deviate from the Maastricht criteria, thus landing the entire economic zone in varying degree of economic crisis.

Copenhagen criteria, however, cannot and should not be bypassed, ignored or placed aside by any member or membership-aspiring country because the norms and values listed are the basic fundamental requirements for club membership. What are the Copenhagen criteria? It is rather easy to answer: If any country governs exactly the opposite of today’s governance in Turkey, it perfectly complies with the Copenhagen criteria. As they were stated in the 1993 Copenhagen Council statement, the Copenhagen criteria is: “Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate’s ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.”

Starting from today, Turkish leaders will most likely declare the Turkey Progress Report, which had yet to be voted on at the European parliament when this article was penned, as hypocritical, unacceptable and contained false and biased information. Perhaps an easy way will be found and the report will be refused all together, by saying the report again called for Turkey’s recognition of allegations that Ottoman Turks committed an Armenian genocide during the dissolution years of the empire. Of course, it is Turkey’s right to accept or reject any document but with regards to voting at a parliament of a club it is aspiring to join, Turkey must take into consideration that to join it must abide by the rules of the game.

EU-Turkey Migration Deal

In a deal struck in March 2016, Turkey promised to help stem the flow of migrants to Europe in return for cash, visas and renewed talks on joining the EU. The Turkish prime minister called it a “new beginning” for the uneasy neighbours. At the core of the deal addressing the flow of smuggled migrants and asylum seekers, both parties agreed that Greece could return “irregular migrants” arriving after 20 March 2016 back to Turkey.

Leaders of the European Union met Turkish premier Ahmet Davutoglu in Brussels on 07 March 2016 to finalize the agreement, as Europeans struggle to limit the strain on their 28-nation bloc from taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

A key element is three billion euros ($3.2 billion) in EU aid for the 2.2 million Syrians settling now in Turkey. The money is intended to raise their living standards and so persuade more of them to stay put rather than attempt perilous crossings to the EU via the Greek islands.

The final offer of “an initial” three billion euros represents a compromise between the EU, which offered that sum over two years, and Turkey, which wanted it every year. Now the money, as French President Francois Hollande said, will be paid out bit by bit as conditions are met, leaving the total pay-out unclear. In addition, such an agreement strengthens the positions of some member countries such as the Visegrad Group (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungry and Poland), which base the acceptance of refugees on their identity (preferably non-Muslims), in a complete violation of the European principles and treaties.

The liberal idea of the EU being a purely political union based on Kantian ideals with a long standing high asylum standards requires a whole new language now. While the deal between Turkey and the EU could require neglecting or perhaps violating EU laws, it also undermines Europe’s human-rights commitments, which might prove costly in the long run.

Europe director for Amnesty International John Dalhuisen said to The Guardian: “It’s a really grim day and it’s a really grim deal. It’s being celebrated by people who are dancing on the grave of refugee protection.”

At the moment Turkey is already in a sort of “grey area”. The problem is what rights do they have in such a relationship? For instance, as a part of a customs union with the EU, Turkey must apply the EU’s common external tariff to third countries and has to adopt a large part of the Acquis Communautaire – i.e. EU law. Turkey complies with the rules, yet has no formal say in the law-making process. Such a “privileged partnership” is neither to Turkey’s advantage as a permanent solution nor to Europe’s advantage as a democratic construct.

By Hakim Charles

Hakim Charles studied political science of the Middle East, European Studies, journalism and linguistics. He has been lecturing at different German universities since 2011 on issues related to ideology and the interplay of power thereof in socio-political life, and religion and its relationship to contemporary politics in the regions of West Asia and North Africa, especially Egypt and Syria. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal (MPC Journal) since 2014 and has published over 100 articles in different languages, academic and otherwise, in a wide spectrum of on-line and printed newspapers, journals and think tanks. His current research focuses on Islam-inspired political ideologies such as Islamist extremism and Salafism, radicalisation, de-radicalisation processes in Germany as well as peace and conflict in the Middle East.

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