Rethinking Turkish-EU Relations – Analysis


By E. Fuat Keyman

The European Commission’s Progress Report on Turkey, published on October 12, 2011, was hardly different than the earlier reports, and nor did it evoke much interest in Turkey or Europe. Turkish-EU relations are currently stuck, and sadly both sides appear to have accepted this situation. A multitude of uncertainties we are facing today, however, call for an urgent revival of the relations. The current global turbulence, the financial and political turmoil in Europe, the uncertain future it projects, the future of Turkey, and the demand for change and development that have accompanied the Arab Spring comprise only a few of the challenges that can be overcome only through strong Turkish –EU relations. Such partnership in responding to these common threats will have concrete benefits for both Turkey and the EU. To achieve this end, Turkey and the EU must act together. The future of Turkey is unthinkable without Europe, and the future of Europe is unthinkable without Turkey. However, the relations between Turkey and the EU have not just ground to a halt, but they are also no longer attractive.


On the one hand, there is the lack of vision on the part of EU leaders. They are prisoners of their short-term bargains and the double standards in the way they try to exclude Turkey. On the other hand, the AK Party government and the opposition, as well as Turkish public opinion, have lost interest in the EU and switched their attention to global and regional relations. All this has brought Turkey-EU relations to a halt. The authors of the progress report seem to have read neither Turkey nor the world correctly while Turkish indifference and its critical attitude toward the report are also hard to understand. The sides involved have reduced a partnership, which is very important not only for them but for the world as a whole, to a negotiation process because of their lack of vision and will. Worse, there is no indicator that this practice will change any time soon.

2011 Turkey Progress Report

Although the progress report has attracted little interest, it does contain three noteworthy points. First, the progress report evaluates the progress candidate countries have made in the course of their accession negotiations. With that in mind, one would have expected that as years passed and the negotiations continued, the number of pages would become fewer. Contrary to this logic, Turkey’s progress report is increasing in volume. The 2011 report is longer than last year’s. This demonstrates the ambivalence of Turkey-EU relations. The negotiating sides bring the talks to a standstill while the pages of the report increase and the problems grow. What each side needs, however, is not new oddities in Turkish-EU relations, but a strong will to revitalize them.

Second, until now the pace of Turkish-EU relations, as well as the timing and framework for them, has been set by the EU. But today, the pace and framework is being determined by Turkey. Turkey has set up a Ministry of EU Affairs, symbolizing the importance it gives to the EU. But recently, the reforms it has undertaken affecting religious minority foundations and the new constitution have not been enacted within the framework of full membership in the EU. In regards to both its intentions and its strategy, the reform process has slipped away from an EU perspective and is focused on domestic stability and global activism in foreign policy. Furthermore, in a development which itself contains a dilemma, after Turkish-EU relations tumbled into a gridlock in 2006 Turkey seems not to have felt there was any harm in this situation, and relying on its economic dynamism and active foreign policy, it is moving toward becoming an important player in global politics. This has become even more visible with the advent of the Arab Spring and the global economic crisis. Turkey’s relations with the EU are at an impasse, but it has an active globalization policy on which its interest is focused.

Third, the demand for democracy and social justice which began with the Arab Spring and later spread to America and Europe along with the economic crises in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy have started a grave debate on the European Union and especially on the future of the Euro. Such debates provide interesting insight into the concept and meaning of full membership and lead us to review our ideas about Turkey-EU relationship and its prospect. The concepts of privileged membership and partnership have become thoroughly meaningless, but under the label of strategic dialogue a new model of full membership is coming into view—one that will ensure the freedom of movement for a Turkey that can contribute to both the future of the EU and the Arab Spring. Perhaps a discussion on the full membership will begin inside the EU, which will directly concern Turkey.

Revival of Relations

Stefan Fule, the Commissioner of Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, is not pleased with the state of Turkey – EU relations. He stresses that the existing hurdles should be resolved and then Turkish-EU relations be restored along the lines of a positive new European agenda. Fule gives a list of at least five points that need to be carried out: “The first is for the European Commission to work more intensively with Turkey on the reform. Second, Turkey must continue work on harmonizing its legislation with the Acquis Communitaire. Third, Turkish-EU economic relations must be maximized. Fourth, top-level dialogue on foreign policy issues, especially the Arab Spring, between Turkey and the EU must be strengthened on the basis of common strategic interests and joint action. Fifth and most important, Europe must work fast to ensure the easement of visa conditions for travel to Turkey from Europe.”

I completely agree with Fule. These things would revive Turkish-EU relations and open a new space for maneuver. But we need a broader debate, founded upon political will and vision. We should take the Commissioner’s suggestions as a point of departure and think about Turkish-EU relations in a global context and within the framework of reciprocal advantage. On that basis, we need to redefine the concept of full membership. We need to insert the concept of “flexible full membership” into the agenda for the discussion in a way that will take note of Turkey’s regional and global role and boost its economic dynamism focusing on sustainable human development. Perhaps Turkey could ask for EU membership without entering the euro zone. We should be debating the advantages and drawbacks of this both for Turkey and the EU. Questions of this sort will enable us to regain the appeal and attention that Turkish-EU relations have currently lost.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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