European Affairs

However, Turkish membership poses major challenges to the EU’s absorptive capacity and political cohesion. With a population of close to 70 million people, Turkey is the second largest country in Europe. If its population continues to grow at the current rate, it will have the largest population in Europe by the middle of the 21st century. Integrating a country of this size – especially one characterized by great regional disparities and a per capita income well below the EU average – will require major adjustments in EU institutions and policies.


In Turkey’s case, cultural factors also affect the membership question. There is an ambiguous legacy between Turkey and Europe. In Turkish eyes, the question of EU membership entails cultural choices. And among many Europeans there has always been – and continues to be – a sense that Turkey is not really “European.”

For centuries, “the Turk” was the significant “other” against which Europe defined its identity. This perception of Turks as “other” is deeply embedded in Europeans’ collective consciousness and continues to color European views of Turkey today. Because of its Muslim culture and religion Turkey is regarded by many EU members as not quite “European.”

This ambiguity about Turkey’s place in Europe – its “Europeanness” – has become more acute since the collapse of communism. During the cold war, strategic considerations tended to dominate Turkey’s relationship to Europe, other reasons were subordinated to the overriding need to bind Turkey close to the West. Turkey provided a critical barrier to the expansion of Soviet military power into the Mediterranean and it tied down some 24 Soviet divisions that would otherwise have been deployed in Central Europe.

With the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the importance of military-strategic factors has declined and cultural and social dimensions have become more important in affecting Turkey’s quest for EU membership. At the same time, with the addition of 12 new EU members, questions about Europe’s borders and “identity” – Where does Europe end? – have begun to play a more prominent role in the debate.

For Turkey, EU membership has always been about more than economics. In Turkish eyes, it represents a historical and “civilizational” choice – the culmination of the process of Westernization that began in the late l9th century under the Ottomans and was given irreversible impetus with the founding of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Turkey rejects the idea of a “privileged partnership” advocated by some EU members because it implies less than full acceptance of Turkey’s Western identity.

Ironically, the strongest advocate of EU membership in Turkey today is the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has Islamic roots. The AKP has made EU membership one of the main pillars of its foreign policy.

The AKP’s strong support for EU membership represents an important shift in the political orientation and agenda of the Islamic movement in Turkey, which traditionally opposed membership in the EU and pursued an anti-Western agenda. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been prime minister since early 2003, and President Abdullah Gul, the AKP has jettisoned the anti-Western ideological rhetoric and tenets of its Islamic predecessors, the National Salvation Party and the Welfare Party, and has embraced a political agenda that emphasizes democracy, respect for human rights, rule of law and membership in the EU and NATO. Whereas in the past Islamists in Turkey regarded Western calls for greater democratic reforms as an attempt to impose alien values on Turkey, the AKP leadership sees membership in the EU, with its emphasis on democracy and human rights, as providing the best means of reducing the political influence of the Turkish military and establishing a more open political order that will ensure the survival of the party.

This political metamorphosis has enabled the AKP1 to broaden its political base and appeal. While it draws strong support from the religious and socially conservative poorer and marginalized groups that make up a growing portion of Turkey’s urban areas, the party enjoys broad-based political support that transcends religious, class and regional differences. In the parliamentary elections in July 2007, the AKP won 47 percent of the popular vote – more than double the share of its closest competitor, the secularist Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP), heir to the Ataturk legacy, which finished second with 21 percent of the popular vote.

The AKP’s ascendancy marks an important transformation of the Turkish political landscape. For decades, the Turkish military and the CHP were the champions of Westernization and close ties to Europe. In recent years, however, this role has been taken over by the AKP. It has become the chief advocate of EU membership while the military and CHP have expressed increasing reservations about the pace of EU integration and some of its requirements, particularly enhanced rights for the Kurds and greater civilian control of the military.

The Erdogan government has made EU membership a top priority. In its first year in office in 2004, it passed a reform package that went well beyond anything the legacy of its predecessors by expanding the teaching of the Kurdish language and increasing civilian participation in the National Security Council. These reforms paved the way for the EU’s decision at its Brussels summit in December 2004 to open accession negotiations with Ankara.

However, since the opening of accession negotiations in October 2005, Turkey’s relations with the EU have been complicated by a number of factors, starting with a slowdown in Turkish domestic reform. The Erdogan government gave this agenda for change high priority during its first two years in office, but after the opening of accession negotiations, the pace of reform slowed. Ankara was increasingly preoccupied with the growing ethnic violence in neighboring Iraq and the escalation of terrorist attacks in Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This concern deflected attention from internal reform, causing strains in relations with the EU.

Simultaneously, European attitudes toward enlargement – particularly Turkish membership – hardened, notably after the French and Dutch referenda saying “no” to the draft EU constitution in 2005. While the European Commission has strongly supported continuing accession negotiations, public opposition to Turkish membership has visibly increased, especially under the new governments in France and Germany. Today an overwhelming majority of the population in both countries opposes Turkish membership (see figure 1).

European Public Opinion: Should Turkey Be Invited to Join the EU?

European Public Opinion: If Turkey Were to Implement Reforms Desired by Some EU Member States, Should It Be Invited to Join the EU?









Moreover, opposition to Turkish membership remains strong even if Turkey carries out reforms desired by EU members (see figure 2). Much of the opposition appears to be based on religious and cultural grounds – a sense, noted earlier, that Turkey is not culturally a part of Europe. It also reflects growing popular concerns about the impact of large waves of Muslim immigrants on social stability.

Previous governments in France and Germany supported Turkish membership, but they have been replaced by leaders who are opposed to it or at least skeptical about it. The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president in France in particular has complicated Turkey’s membership prospects. Sarkozy has argued that “Turkey does not belong in Europe” and has sought to slow the accession process. Shortly after his election, France blocked the opening of negotiations on the chapter on economic and monetary policy. Instead he has proposed giving Turkey a major role in a “Mediterranean Union” that would include France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Malta and Cyprus. This idea has little appeal in Ankara because it is seen as a substitute for EU membership.

The Cyprus issue also complicates Turkey’s relations with the EU. While policies toward Cyprus are not officially part of the Copenhagen criteria that have been established as the requirements for EU accession, the absence of a settlement of questions about the divided island influences the debate about Turkish membership and provides a convenient excuse for EU members opposed to Turkish membership to block or delay the accession negotiations. Because of Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Cypriot planes and ships, the EU decided in December 2006 to suspend negotiations on eight of 35 chapters in the accession negotiations.

Since the AKP’s overwhelming victory in the July 2007 parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Erdogan has reiterated his government’s determination to re-launch its effort to achieve the goal of membership. However, reinvigorating the accession process may prove difficult for several reasons.

First, Erdogan’s top priority is obtaining ratification of a new constitution to replace the l982 constitution promulgated while Turkey was under military rule. This is likely to consume much of his time and energy. Other internal reforms advocated by the EU (such as repeal of Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code which makes it a jailable crime to insult “Turkishness”) are likely to be delayed while he concentrates on constitutional matters.

The Kurdish issue, particularly the cross-border terrorist attacks conducted by the PKK from sanctuaries in northern Iraq, poses a second potential obstacle. During the spring and the fall of 2007 the PKK stepped up its cross-border attacks. As a consequence, the Erdogan government has come under domestic pressure to launch a large-scale military strike against the PKK camps in Iraq.

Erdogan’s visit to Washington in early November 2007 resulted in closer U.S.-Turkish military cooperation in fighting the PKK – and closer political consultations on the issue. The problem is not likely to disappear. Once the winter snows melt, the PKK is likely to renew cross-border attacks against Turkey. Erdogan could come under renewed domestic pressure to undertake more forceful military action beyond the limited surgical attacks that Turkey has conducted against the PKK camps in northern Iraq since his Washington visit.

The continued preoccupation with the PKK threat could deflect the government’s attention from its domestic reform agenda and accentuate strains with the EU. The PKK problem, however, cannot be resolved by military means. A tough military stance against PKK terrorism needs to be combined with social, economic and legal changes designed to make the Kurds feel that they enjoy equal rights with the rest of the Turkish population.

Civilian control of the military represents a third problem. For the past seventy years, the Turkish military has acted as the custodian of the Kemalist revolution. It has intervened four times in the postwar period when it thought the basic principles of Kemalism were threatened. The democratic reforms introduced in the past decade, especially those introduced by the Erdogan government, have reduced the power of the military to intrude in politics. However, the military continues to see itself as the ultimate guarantor of Turkey’s commitment to secularism, and it is unclear whether the military is prepared to accept a further reduction of its political role at a time when it believes that Turkey is faced with growing internal and external threats.

Finally, the Cyprus issue remains a potential obstacle to Turkish membership and affects the attitude of many members. The prospects for progress toward a settlement in the near future seem remote, with both sides set in their positions. The UN-brokered Annan Plan in 2004 was rejected by Greek Cypriot voters and a subsequent UN proposal for new negotiations, accepted by Turkey and Cyprus, has yet to be implemented. Meanwhile Turkey has been swept by growing nationalism that makes any movement or shift in Turkish policy difficult.

The hardening of European attitudes toward Turkish membership has contributed to growing disaffection with the EU in Turkey. In the last several years, frustration with the EU has grown and popular support for EU membership has declined. Whereas 73 percent of the Turkish population supported Turkish membership in 2004, that percentage dropped to 54 percent in 2006 – and then in 2007 to 40 percent.

The decline in Turkish public support for EU membership is particularly troubling because it has coincided with a serious deterioration of Turkey’s relations with the United States. In the past, when relations with the EU were bad, Turkey could always turn to the United States. But today this option is no longer available. For the first time, Turkey’s relations with both Washington and Brussels are strained at the same time.

The simultaneous deterioration of relations with the United States and the EU has contributed to a growing sense of vulnerability and nationalism in Turkey. Today an increasing number of Turks feel that Turkey can no longer rely on its traditional allies. This has resulted in the emergence of a kind of “siege mentality” among large parts of the Turkish population. As noted by veteran Turkey watcher Henri Barkey of Leheigh University, today many Turks “are wallowing in fear and self-doubt, suspecting anybody and everybody – indeed the world at large – of ganging up on them.”

This mood is dangerous. A nationalistic, inward-looking Turkey, alienated from the West, would add to uncertainties in an already highly unstable and increasingly volatile region. Such a development is in no one’s interest –certainly not Europe’s. By contrast, an economically prosperous and democratic Turkey, closely integrated into the West, would be a major asset and could act as an important bridge to the Muslim world. Keeping open a European perspective for Turkey is important.

Of course, Turkey will have to meet the criteria for membership. This is likely to take at least a decade, perhaps longer. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts to membership. However, Ankara has made considerable progress in meeting the criteria for membership in recent years. And it has had close to a seven percent growth rate over the last five years – far higher than that of most EU members.

The issue is not whether Turkey is currently qualified to enter the EU. There is general agreement, including in Ankara, that Turkey still has some distance to go before it can qualify for membership and the EU has to decide on its accession. By that time a very different Turkey – one economically more prosperous and politically more democratic – will be standing on the threshold. It is on the qualifications of that Turkey, not the Turkey of today, that the EU should make its decision. In the meantime, the door to Turkish membership should be kept open and no new special hurdles to Turkish entry should be erected.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. He is co-author (with Ian O. Lesser) of Turkish Foreign Policy in an Age of Uncertainty, RAND, Santa Monica, 2003.

1Editors’ note: Recent domestic political developments – notably a lawsuit against the ruling AKP – will distract the government from its reform agenda and complicate talks with the EU, at least temporarily. Apparently sparked by the government’s decision to lift a long-standing ban on wearing Islamic head-scarves, the lawsuit seeks to dissolve the AKP on grounds that it has violated Turkey’s secular constitution. The suit was filed and accepted for trial in the country’s constitutional court in late March, after Mr. Larrabee’s article appeared on our website. A senior EU official said that Turkey’s candidacy could be damaged if the outcome was a court-ordered ban on a democratically-elected party.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.