European Affairs

Can the EU Ever Solve ‘Turkey’?     Print Email

On October 3, 2005, the European Union officially started membership talks with Turkey and Croatia. While both countries celebrated the occasion, it was a particularly special moment for Turkey, which had been patiently and knocking on Europe’s door since 1959. The euphoria of 2005, however, would prove short-lived for Turkey. The accession talks quickly suffered setbacks, with the EU vetoing the opening of a number of negotiation chapters. Very limited progress has been made since then, and relations between Ankara and Brussels have steadily deteriorated as a consequence. They hit a low point in the second half of 2012 when Turkey froze ties with the European institutions as the Republic of Cyprus held the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. Croatia, in comparison, is slated to join the EU on the 1st of July this year.

Nonetheless, Turkey and the EU in recent months have taken small steps, including discussions on visa liberalization measures and efforts to tackle illegal immigration, to counter the downward slide in relations, to rebuild trust and to put the negotiations back on track.  Ultimately, both parties have strong incentives not to end the accession talks, and neither side wants to be held responsible for the collapse of the negotiations.   For the EU, a rapidly growing and increasingly confident Turkey remains a key geopolitical and foreign policy asset for the EU, especially in the Mediterranean area. For Turkey, the EU is still and will continue to be  an essential trading partner.   
But, after seven years, the challenges for Ankara and Brussels remain daunting.  Is there enough political will on both sides to reverse the trend and rebuild trust? How dedicated can the EU be to enlargement considering the serious crisis in the Eurozone and the worsening situation on Turkey’s borders? Will a more assertive and powerful Turkey remain committed to the West, or will Turkey eventually lose patience with Brussels? And, even if the negotiations were to succeed, how likely is it that a member state would  veto Turkey’s accession, using the pretexts that the country is too big, too poor, too Muslim, or not really located in Europe?

Turkey’s interest in the EU is nearly as old as the European integration project itself. As The Economist relates, Ankara first applied for an association with the European Economic Community in 1959, or only two years after its establishment. Four years later, Turkey signed an association agreement with the EEC; and in 1987, Turkey applied for membership. The European Commission, however, insisted at the time that negotiations would have to wait for a more favorable context, emphasizing Turkey’s domestic problems, its tense relations with Greece and the unsolved Cyprus question. Instead, Ankara and Brussels negotiated a customs union that came into effect in 1996. Through that agreement, according to Turkish scholar Sinan Ülgen, both parties agreed to eliminate tariffs on all industrial goods, reduce tariffs on process agricultural goods, and to ensure a harmonization between Turkish and EU legislation in regard to customs regimes and competition policy.

Ankara’s patience was tested again when, in 1997 the EU opted to invite twelve countries (liberated Eastern and Central Europe, along with Cyprus and Malta) to open accession talks, but left out Turkey. Ankara’s dogged persistence, however, eventually paid off. At the December 1999 Helsinki Summit, the EU officially recognized Turkey’s membership application as being on par with the other existing candidates. Moreover, the domestic reforms implemented by the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), which took power in 2002, eventually convinced all EU member-states to start negotiations with Turkey in October 2005.

Yet, any hopes that the negotiation process would be smooth and straightforward died quickly, undermined first by the Cyprus issue. The island has remained divided since 1974 , and Turkey still does not recognize the ethnically Greek Republic of Cyprus, which joined the EU in May of 2004. Despite repeated requests from Brussels, Ankara refused to extend the provisions of the EU-Turkish customs union to Cyprus, denying Cypriot ships and planes access to its ports and airports. In response, the EU decided in December 2006 to suspend talks on eight chapters - out of the 35 chapters of EU legislation and legal acts, otherwise known as the ‘acquis communautaire’ (from the French terms “acquis”  meaning “that which has been agreed upon” and “communautaire,” meaning “of the community)  with which every candidate must comply throughout the negotiations in order to become a member.

To complicate matters further, new political leaders took office in Paris and Berlin who were far from supportive of Turkey’s cause. German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to power advocating a “partnership” with Turkey that would fall short of a full EU membership. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, an even more vocal opponent of Turkey joining the EU, opted to veto the opening of five additional chapters when he took office in 2007, and threatened to hold a national referendum on Turkish accession if negotiations ever came to that stage. As a consequence, after more than seven years, the talks have barely moved forward. Turkey has  opened only thirteen chapters since 2005,  and closed one, with no new chapters opened since June 2010, while eighteen chapters remain “frozen” at this point – some blocked by EU as a whole, and others by the Cypriot and French governments.

The stalled negotiations have created great tension between Turkey and the EU. Turkish policy circles are paying less attention to Europe, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan making only minimal references to the EU during his AKP convention speech in October 2012. Turkish public opinion has also soured on the EU throughout the negotiation process. Whereas 74% of the population supported EU membership in 2005, that number has now dropped to 33%, and a staggering 60% are in favor of outright termination of the accession talks. Furthermore, with the negotiation talks in a standstill, Brussels has lost leverage in Ankara and has become increasingly concerned by the slow progress on  domestic reforms in Turkey. While the prospect of joining the EU spurred some promising changes under the AKP in the early to mid-2000s, including conciliatory gestures towards the Kurdish minority, since then civil liberties have suffered setbacks, with a  number of prosecutions and incarceration of journalists, writers, and Kurdish political activists.  The latest annual EU report on Turkey’s candidacy, published in October 2012, took a critical tone, lamenting the “recurring infringements” on liberty, security, fair trial and freedom of expression.

As noted, relations between Turkey and the EU hit a symbolic low point in 2012, during the Cypriot rotating Presidency of the European Council.   An AKP parliamentarian threw the EU’s progress report in a trash can while appearing on a television show. But, both sides in recent months have taken steps to stop this downward slide, rebuild trust, and wrench the negotiations out of the ditch.  The European Commission launched a ‘positive agenda’ in May 2012, which included regular meetings of Turkish and EU bureaucrats within eight working groups,  each dedicated to a specific negotiating chapter. Moreover, the following month, Turkey and the European Commission took the first important steps towards a mutually advantageous agreement.  In exchange for accepting a ‘readmission agreement’ to take back illegal immigrants who entered the EU through its territory, Turkey would gain an easing of visa requirements for Turkish citizens wanting to visit the “Schengen”  area, where free movement is permitted within EU. 

Finally, Sarkozy’s defeat in the May 2012 Presidential elections has also removed a major opponent to Turkeys accession.  In February 2013, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius indicated that his government was ready to remove its veto of chapter 22 on regional policy, and negotiations should open in the summer. Angela Merkel, at the same time, also came out in support of new talks to revive Turkey’s stalled membership bid, although she also added that the ultimate outcome of the talks should remain open.

Yet, while all these measures confirm a willingness in Ankara and Brussels to improve relations, there is little reason to expect a fundamental change in the fate of negotiations in the short term. The outstanding problems, particularly Cyprus, remain formidable.  Furthermore, the enlargement appetite among Europeans is limited, following the accession of thirteen new members in less than a decade and the continued social and economic costs of the sovereign debt crisis.   The EU is not likely to  achieve substantial progress on the Turkish negotiations as long as its own house is not in order.  Turkey, for its part, is also distracted by the turmoil in neighboring Syria.

This means that the fate of Turkey’s candidacy is likely to drag on for years, unless of course Ankara decides to eventually give up on the EU.  Certainly, Prime Minister Erdogan warned in October 2012 that he wanted Turkey to become an EU member by 2023,  the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic.  While 2023  provides a longish lead time, Erdogan  created a further stir last month when he suggested that if the EU continued to drag its feet, Turkey might consider joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a security organization composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In a more general sense, Turkey’s staggering economic growth in the last decade – 5.2% GDP growth per annum between 2002 and 2011, with peaks over 8% in 2010 and 2011 – has led to a more independent and assertive foreign policy, and Ankara  has not been shy about using its increased  geopolitical heft in the region.

 But, while there is no doubt that Turkey has become more confident and more aware of its leverage – such as its influence over the new Islamist governments that are emerging from the Arab Uprising –the likelihood  of a break away from the West should not be overstated.  Despite Erdogan’s occasional bluster, Turkey understands the value of its NATO membership and ties to the West. That was made particularly clear when NATO deployed missiles on Turkey’s border with Syria after the skirmishes that occurred last year. Furthermore, Turkey’s economy also remains fundamentally connected to that of the EU. Ankara has tried  to expand its ties with other markets in Africa and the Middle East, but 38% of its trade still takes place with the EU (2011 numbers), more than one third of Turkish exports end up in the EU, and around 80% of all foreign investment in Turkey comes from the EU.

In all likelihood, accession talks will continue, in slow motion,       and both sides will do their utmost to avoid a complete collapse. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that they might even progress to a point, even if laboriously, where all chapters would be closed. That still would not be the end of the road, however, as membership would only become official if all existing members unanimously supported Turkey’s accession. Granted, as The Economist points out, no country has ever begun entry negotiations without eventually being offered full membership, but few candidacies have been as polarizing as Turkey’s.

Opponents and supporters of Turkey joining the EU offer vigorous arguments, but they start from a very different point of view of the country, as Spiegel observed already in 2004. Officials who reject Turkey underline its fundamental cultural incompatibility with Europe, sometimes crudely describing it as ‘too big, too poor and too Muslim.’ They worry that upon accession member states would have to subsidize Turkey, that they would face widespread immigration of Turkish citizens in the rest of the Schengen area, and that Turkey’s large population (75 Million at present and which could overtake Germany within a decade) would give it undue influence in the European Parliament and EU decision-making. Additionally, critics of Ankara point out that the country is essentially not in Europe, with more than half if its land mass across the Dardanelles, and unambiguously in Asia.  Critics also say that  allowing Turkey to join would place the EU’s borders next to troubled countries such as Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Alternatively, those who support Turkey’s candidacy believe Turkey is a  bet on  the future. They emphasize Turkey’s dynamic economy, the domestic reforms and its value as a bridge between the West and the Islamic world. Moreover, Turkey’s accession could provide a major security, geopolitical and defense boost for the EU’s  foreign policy aspirations.

Fifty years ago, after Turkey signed an association agreement with the EEC, the first President of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein, declared that Turkey was part of Europe. But, half a century later, this sentiment is still far from unanimous across the states in the EU, meaning that Turkey still remains on the threshold of Europe.