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The EU and Turkey

"Will the future of the European Union be limited by religious and ethnic considerations, or will it be one that reaches out and boldly contributes to diversity and unity?"[1]


Turkey and Greece were the first countries to sign association agreements with the EEC, Greece in 1961, Turkey just two years later in 1963. Both agreements held out the possibility of EC membership in identical terms when they were able to comply with the Treaty of Rome. Greece joined in 1981, whereas Turkey, which applied for membership in 1987, is still not a member. Negotiations on accession continue but despite a major programme of reform within Turkey, considerable obstacles remain to her joining. These are of two kinds. Firstly, like all applicants, can Turkey credibly meet the obligations of membership? There are some difficulties for Turkey here. And secondly, the more difficult question of the kind of country Turkey is and what kind of European Union its present members want.

This paper considers the dilemma facing the EU and the implications of success or failure in the negotiations. The annex is a summary history of the negotiating process and the difficulties in that, concluding with the state of play at time of writing.

The dilemma: Is Turkey "European" and what kind of Union?

Turkey has had an avowedly secular constitution and been on a deliberately modernising (and European) path since its foundation by Kemal Atatürk as a modern state following the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Attempts by some Islamic politicians to take the nation on a different path have been resisted fiercely by both other politicians and the large (and politically powerful) Turkish armed forces, which were from the beginning regarded by Kemal Attaturk and indeed Turkish public opinion as the guardians of the secular Turkish state. Most recently the army intervened to compel the resignation of the Prime Minister in 1997, Necmettin Erbakan, because his policies were seen to take Turkey away from its secular tradition.

After World War Two, Turkey was a founder member of the OECD, an early entrant to the Council of Europe and (with Greece) joined NATO in 1952. But despite the EEC’s early recognition of Turkey’s European vocation in 1963, (repeated many times since-see history at annex) objections to Turkish membership inside the EC/EU have stemmed not only from human rights problems, the dispute over Cyprus (see paragraphs 7-11 of the annex) and economic difficulties, but increasingly also from a deep-seated view in some countries that Turkey is not properly a European nation.

Geographically only a small part of Turkey is in Europe, the rest being Asia Minor. Historically the Ottoman Turks were seen as a marauder and conqueror from Central Asia who destroyed the Byzantine Christian civilisation. Culturally, Turkey belongs to an Islamic rather than the Judaic-Christian tradition of Europe. 9/11 and the tensions between Al-Qaeda and fundamentalist Islamic regimes like the Taliban in Afghanistan, reflected among a small minority in the Muslim populations in European countries, has reinforced a belief in some quarters that the two traditions are, if not actually incompatible, at least uneasy bedfellows.

This has been reinforced in turn by a perception by some that EU enlargement has gone far enough and should not take as its next challenge so different and large a country as Turkey (she has a relatively large population by EU standards - 72 million - and expected to exceed Germany’s in the near future),. Turkish accession has become a political football in some EU Member States with particularly strong opposition in Austria and France. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has advocated a "privileged partnership" with the EU, rather than membership but as Turkey has been in Customs Union with the EU since 1995, and has other special arrangements, it is not clear what this could consist of.

Turkey’s perceived economic backwardness is also of concern. She has however substantially turned round her economy with inflation, which at one stage exceeded 50 per cent now in single figures. The EU-Turkey customs union has encouraged large-scale foreign direct investment for the first time and external trade has increased five-fold. The conditions for growth have been established with a sharp reduction in the budget deficit and structural reforms such as privatisation. Turkey has a young and growing labour force at a time when the population and workforce of most EU countries is ageing and in some countries populations actually declining. By the time Turkey could hope to join and to enjoy full movement of labour, current concerns about floods of Turkish ‘Gastarbeiter’ could look very out of date.

There are fears that the EU risks becoming unmanageable and collapsing under its own weight if it enlarges further, or so changing its nature as to be no longer the EU that was the original goal. But the EU has already changed from the tight-knit club of an earlier generation, yet has fulfilled beyond their wildest dreams the aspiration of the founding fathers to create an area of security, stability and cooperation in Europe. At the same time, as the European Council in December 2006 (when it re-affirmed the EU’s commitment to existing candidates), made clear, "the EU's capacity to integrate new members forms the basis for a renewed consensus on enlargement...and the Union must be able to function effectively and to develop…Both these aspects are essential for ensuring broad and sustained public support". Moreover if Turkey falls short of the required democratic and human rights standards demanded of EU Members, as it now certainly does, nobody is in any doubt - whether in the EU or in Turkey itself - that membership will not be possible. This too has been set out clearly by EU Ministers and the European Council

The implications of rejecting Turkish membership of the EU

The EEC promised Turkey membership, conditionally, more than 40 years ago and has often repeated the commitment since. Turkey has been seeking integration into Europe ever since, economically and as far as possible politically and it has launched major internal changes to facilitate membership. Not admitting Turkey once it meets the EU’s standards would be extremely damaging.

Not only would rejecting Turkey be seen justifiably as an act of bad faith but the EU would appear to many in the Moslem world as racist and discriminatory. They would not find convincing claims of cultural and religious differences in a world in which a secular western popular culture is dominant. Rejection on these grounds would be inflammatory and socially destabilising inside Europe as well.

As Turkey borders Iraq, Iran and Syria, Turkish participation in the EU’s approach to the issues in the Middle East would greatly increase the EU’s influence on events. Conversely pushing Turkey away from the European mainstream and towards an unstable Middle East would be an own goal by Western nations. Rebuffed by Europe, the forces of modernisation in Turkey could lose ground, anti-western sentiment could grow and other forces start to take over the direction of the country. The spread of militant forms of Islam is not to be excluded if the population feels that Turkey’s espousal of European values has been rebuffed, even though the armed forces could be expected to resist this. In other words there would be a threat to Turkey’s internal stability and external orientation in a part of the world crucial to European interests.

The economic opportunities presented by Turkish membership could also be jeopardised by Turkish non-entry to the EU. At a time when the EU is increasingly concerned about its dependence on oil and particularly gas piped from Russia, it has a strong interest in gas and oil from the Caucasus and Central Asia, at present piped through Russia, being piped instead through Turkey.

For all these reasons, it is extremely important that the EU continues the accession negotiations in progress with Turkey and does not on any pretext turn Turkey.

January 2007


HISTORICAL ANNEX: The Turkish accession process

From Association to Application

The 1963 Association Agreement, which broadly matched an earlier one concluded with Greece, set out three stages in order to achieve customs union with the Community, taking at least 17 years. This well-ordered path could not be followed, despite further details being agreed in 1970. Critics of the EEC argue that too little was done to prepare the Community to meet its obligations to Turkey but a series of political and economic events loosened the ties between Turkey and the Community.[2]

These developments included the focus on southern enlargement, creation of a wider Mediterranean policy and the Greek application to join. Turkey was left isolated after it invaded Cyprus in 1974 and subsequently established a Turkish Cypriot ‘state’ in the north. When Greece joined the Community in 1981 she acquired the right to veto any new applicant such as Turkey and the chance to use her influence within the Community when discussing Cyprus. Turkey reacted to these developments by suspending her obligations under the protocol to the 1963 agreement for five years.

In any case, the 1980 military coup in Turkey brought any improvement in the relationship to a halt. The association agreement could not be implemented in such a situation and the denial of basic human rights and democracy meant Turkey had no prospect of joining the EC until democracy was restored in 1983. Turkey formally applied for EC membership in 1987 but acknowledged that it would take some time.

Achievement of Customs Union

The Turkish application received a "not yet" response from the EC in December 1989, partly because of the Community’s concentration on achieving the Single Market by 1993 but also because of the low level of Turkish economic development compared to EC countries, human rights issues and on-going poor Greek-Turkish relations. The EC decided to re-launch the process in the association agreement in order to achieve full customs union by 1995 and make other improvements in the relationship with Turkey that had been blocked since the 1980 coup. Despite Greek objections following a major Turkish-Greek row over territorial issues which brought the two countries close to actual hostilities, the Community pressed on with its ambition to achieve full customs union with Turkey and agreement on this was achieved in 1995. But this came at the price of agreement also that the next wave of enlargement would include Cyprus (and Malta), in other words no later than the Central and East European applicants.

Accession Negotiations

In 1997 the EU declared that Turkey had achieved sufficient political (and economic) progress to qualify as eligible to become a Member of the European Union, but still rejected Turkey’s aspiration to be recognised as an actual candidate. It was finally recognised as a candidate, on the same basis as all other candidate countries, two years later in 1999. These developments led to the establishment of an EU-Turkey Accession Partnership – agreed in 2001 – and the Turkish Government began the process of implementing the EU’s rule book (acquis communautaire). Political reforms in Turkey also began that year to ensure that the country met the political as well as the legal and political criteria for EU membership. The Turkish Government has implemented nine packages of reform and these have made key changes in Turkish life, including abolishing the death penalty, reducing the military’s involvement in politics and giving greater rights to Kurdish people.

Between 2002 and 2005 the EU and Turkey prepared for the opening of the accession negotiations. Negotiations began on 3 October 2005 and have continued since. No party to the talks, including Turkey, expects Turkey would be able to join before 2015 at the earliest.

The difficulties over Cyprus were worsened by the rejection of a UN plan to reunite the island in April 2004. A majority of people in Northern Cyprus voted for the plan but it was rejected by a majority in the Greek Cypriot part of the island. Cyprus was still allowed to join the EU on 1 May 2004 even though the Greek Cypriot Government does not control the whole island and the acquis communautaire is suspended in the north of the island.

Turkish accession negotiations began on the understanding that Turkey would extend the customs union to all the 2004 new Member States, including Cyprus. In the view of the EU this required Turkey to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. The EU separately undertook to allow preferential trade with the hitherto isolated Northern Cyprus. In practice, neither of these two things has happened, with Turkey keeping its ports closed and the EU having not opened trade links with Northern Cyprus because of objections from the Greek Cypriot Government.

November 2006 Commission Report

The accession negotiations cover 35 separate areas of policy, known as chapters. Although only one of these, concerning research and development, has been completed, Turkey is already implementing much of the acquis. Nonetheless, difficulties over Cyprus and concern about Turkish reform slowing down led to an impasse in the talks. In November 2006 the Commission reported, and the Council of Minister agreed, that Turkey must comply with the provisions of the customs union and open its ports to vessels flying the Cypriot flag.

The Commission report identified several additional concerns including the continued inclusion in the Turkish penal code of a law that makes it illegal to insult Turkishness (including the organs of the state) as well as new laws against terrorism. The core problem for Turkey in the field of human rights is that some of its law and much of its police and judicial practice do not match the standards set by the European Convention on Human Rights or the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. There is, for example, a ban on the teaching of Kurdish in all schools. There are also problems over the freedom of non-Muslims to practice their religion.

Because of the row overCyprus, in December 2006 the EU foreign ministers decided to freeze the eight chapters identified by the Commission as being linked to Turkey’s refusal to apply the customs union fully to Cyprus while continuing negotiations on the others. They set no further deadlines for Turkey to implement fully the customs union with the new Member States but this clearly remains a serious obstacle. These decisions were re-affirmed by the December 2006 European Council. Although the conclusions of the European Council talked of the need to "sustain the integration capacity of the EU" and decided that in future the EU would "refrain from setting any target dates for accession until the negotiations are close to completion", it also stated that "the EU keeps its commitments towards the countries that are in the enlargement process". The door is still open to Turkey. The Turkish response to the setbacks was calm and measured. But the Turks are a proud people and there is increasing sentiment in Turkey that if the EU continues to make it clear that it doesn’t want them, they don’t want the EU. Popular support for EU membership has fallen from around 80% at its peak five years ago to 50% in recent polls.


[1] Ismail Cem, Turkish Foreign Minister ‘Isn’t Europe Ambitious Enough to Admit Turkey?’ International Herald Tribune, 10 December 1997, p.10.

[2] Promises to Keep: The Reality of Turkey-EU Relations, Ebru Loewendahl, Action Centre for Europe Ltd, January 1998, p.4.

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