With a relative thaw in relations between Ankara and Paris on EU accession, prospects look better for Turkey’s EU membership, though significant challenges remain.
By Dr. Ahmed Magdy Al-Soukkary*
On 4th April 2013, Turkish president, Abdullah Gül, criticised the European Union over its slow procedures in signing a visa exemption agreement with Turkey, particularly as it has been signing such agreements with states that have not even started membership negotiations. This came during a speech at the Lithuania-Turkey Business Forum in Vilnius. Gül also expressed his expectations about Turkey’s accession to the EU, underlining that Vilnius would become the EU rotating president in three months’ time (July-December 2013).
On a previous occasion, Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that, “The European Union will lose Turkey if it doesn’t grant it membership by 2023.” This statement came during a panel discussion in Berlin on 30th October 2012, about three weeks after a scathing annual EU report by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, entitled “Turkey 2012 Progress Report”. The report stated that it was increasingly worried over reforms in the largest EU candidate state, Turkey, regarding the respect of fundamental rights. Rights to liberty, security, fair trial and freedom of expression, assembly and association were of particular concern. As a consequence of government policies, the report said, self-censorship by the media was increasingly widespread. This statement came also at a critical time of growing alienation between Turkey and EU.
Membership in the EU means from one side recognising the structures, rules and – most importantly – objectives of the EU, and from another side the timeframe given for Turkey to fully and effectively adopt EU acquis (the totality of EU laws, treaties and legislation) into its legal system. This was never held in doubt during all past accession processes and it will not be different in Turkey’s accession negotiations.
Turkey’s importance for Europe stems from many factors, including its promising economic capabilities and geographic proximity to the European continent, while bridging the EU and the Middle East. Europe needs Turkey as it not only has influence on political, economic and sociocultural developments in the European continent, but also has been influenced by them. For Turkey, it is keen to join the EU as its membership would allow the Turkish state to further assert itself as a responsible regional power. EU membership is regarded by Turkey as the pathway to modernising state and society.
Challenges to Turkey’s accession
In its march towards EU membership, Turkey faces two types of challenges. First, domestic challenges, as Turkey must implement EU legislation. In this regard, there are real European concerns regarding Turkey’s ability to harmonise its policies with EU law, especially in the economic field. On the institutional level, Turkey’s possible membership presents the EU with the largest institutional challenge it has ever faced. All previous enlargements have led to institutional restructuring. However, Turkey’s size, at around 80 million, makes the issue more pressing.
Second, external challenges. These include complicated issues like Turkey’s dispute with Greece. Normalisation between Greece and Turkey has come far since tensions in the Aegean Sea threatened war three times between the NATO allies. Trade, investments and mutual cooperation and tourism have taken off, side-lining issues like the Cyprus problem, which first stirred up the Aegean dispute in the early 1970s. Frequent bilateral talks and Turkey’s unofficial 2011 suspension of military over-flights of Greek islands suggest that the time may be ripe for a solution to that dispute.
Regarding the Cyprus problem, the accession of Greek Cypriots to the EU on 1st May 2004 – before solving pending issues between Greek and Turkish Cypriot parties, in addition to the ongoing isolation of Turkish Cypriots, and the ambivalent messages from the EU regarding Turkish membership – caused a dramatic decline in the credibility of the union in Turkey. In its regular report about Turkey’s progress in fulfilling EU membership obligations, issued on 10th October 2012, the European Commission criticised Ankara for poor cooperation with the EU in the second half of that year, as EU member Cyprus held the bloc’s rotating presidency. Indeed, Turkey’s EU path is complicated by Cyprus. Only Ankara recognises the northern part of the island as a sovereign state.
The Armenian problem is also on the table. Turkey grapples with pressure from European actors and domestic clashes regarding the Armenian question; considered one of the most contentious issues at the heart of Turkish national identity, and one of the most divisive for Turkey in its relations with the EU. Turkey is accused by Armenia of committing genocide against 1.5 million Armenians in Western Armenia under Turkish Ottoman rule during the period 1915-1917. Some European countries, like France, ask Turkey to acknowledge the mass killing of Armenians. Turkey says the victims died during civil unrest and as a result of famine and the aftershocks of World War I, and not genocide.
Though the EU does not consider Turkish acknowledgement a condition of EU entry, this issue has been raised from time-to-time by some EU members once accession negotiations begin or resume, which appears as a European tactic to gain leverage over Turkey on other issues, like the Cyprus problem, or to prolong the negotiation process itself.
Turkey’s human rights record is also a main topic of concern. The European Commission claims that Turkey does not yet meet required standards on human rights and freedom of speech. The EU has indicated that Turkey must improve its human rights record, especially concerning Kurdish rights. In this regard, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party has launched an ambitious drive towards a peaceful resolution to its Kurdish problem, in order to assuage European concerns on human rights standards.
Public attitudes towards Turkey’s accession
People’s attitudes towards Turkey’s accession to the EU, both in Turkey and Europe, affect strongly the pace and tenor of Turkish-European accession negotiations. According to Eurobarometer surveys, support for Turkey’s EU accession is not only low, but also shrinking.
The opposition camp, though not homogenous, is much stronger among older EU states than it is among the 12 new member states of 2004 and 2007. But even among older member states, there are differences. Those strongly opposed include Austria, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Greece, France and Finland. Opposition to Turkey’s membership in these countries is furthermore a long-held position in public demeanour. There are virtually no divisions among member states concerning their understanding that Turkey will have to improve its economy substantially before it can join the EU.
For European public opinion, Turkey’s best asset is to show unambiguous commitment to democratic transformation and European values. Turkey’s progress in implementing the impressive reform programme set out in accession negotiations will have the greatest impact on European opinion. As for Turkish public attitudes to possible EU accession, Turks are mostly Eurosceptics.
Ireland, which currently occupies the EU’s rotating presidency, “is hoping to open” the regional policy question, notes Le Monde. Furthermore, Dublin “has not ruled out talks… relating to the economic and monetary union”, even if Paris has argued that “it is not a priority in the current context of the reconstruction of the Eurozone”, the daily explains. “The first step towards a thaw after years of frozen talks,” remarks Le Monde in the wake of the 12 February meeting between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, which concluded with Paris announcing that it was in favour of re-launching negotiations on Turkish accession.
We can conclude here three perceived conditions for pursuing the accession process between Turkey and the EU. First, reaching a compromise concerning the Cyprus problem. If it is not resolved in the near future, it would risk hindering membership negotiations, as well as harming Turkish-EU relations as a whole. Second, the more the discourse on Turkey is played along interest lines, the more likely EU’s support for Turkey’s accession will be high. The more the discourse is played along identity lines, the more likely that support will be low. Finally, the support of Turkish public opinion and Turkish civil society as a whole behind Turkish reforms is vital, and may even constitute a condition for Turkey’s European project.
Dr. Ahmed Magdy Al-Soukkary is an Egyptian academic lecturer in International Negotiations at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science (FEPS), Cairo University. He teaches and conducts academic research on international politics, conflict management and Resolution, cross-cultural communication, Foreign Policy, EU accession negotiations, EU politics, and Turkish politics.
This article was originally published by Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper, a leading independent English-language newspaper in Egypt, Arab world, and throughout the Middle East region, dealing with in-depth coverage of news and analyses of most pertinent topics and events. The article can be accessed by clicking here.