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Home » EU - Turkey Relations, International

Turkey and the European Union: A Tale of Fifty Years

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 16:01

By Professor Dr Meltem Muftuler Bac, Professor/Jean Monnet Chair, Sabanci University

On his visit to Berlin in late October 2012, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the EU needs to decide whether Turkey is a member of the EU or not by 2023. This declaration summarizes, on the one hand, the frustration that many Turks feel in their relations with the EU, and on the other hand, reflects a recent change in the Turkish attitudes towards the EU.

It is worth remembering here that Turkey’s relations with the European Union have always been ambivalent at best, complicated at worst. In the post World War II period, Turkey formulated its foreign policy in an attempt to become an integral part of the European order. To do so, it became a member in the Council of Europe in 1948, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (then OECC) in 1949 and NATO in 1952.

Turkey, following Greece’s application, applied to the then European Economic Community in 1959 and signed its Association Agreement, the Ankara Treaty in 1963. Both the Turkish and Greek Association Agreements looked towards an eventual full membership of these countries in the European Community and aimed to prepare both parties for accession. However, Turkey’s relations with the EC entered a turbulent period in the 1970s and finally culminated in its suspension following Turkey’s military take- over in 1980. Turkey finally applied for full membership in the European Community in 1987, yet times had significantly changed by then, and the EC was not ready to deal with a possible Turkish accession. Specifically, the Cold War was ending and the European Community was on the road for further integration, to the European Union.

At the end of the Cold War, the Central and Eastern European countries all applied to become EU members and the EU adopted the Copenhagen criteria in 1993 in order to evaluate all the new applications. For the applicants to become candidates, the European Commission needed to give its approval on their ability to meet especially the political aspects of the Copenhagen criteria. In order to secure the European Commission’s recommendation of its candidacy, Turkey had to adopt the necessary political reforms, and it was not until 1999 that this became possible when the European Commission recommended candidacy status for Turkey.

Turkey’s relations with the EU entered a new stage with the European Council decision to elevate Turkey into a candidate country with the 1999 Helsinki summit. This meant that Turkey would accede to the European Union under the same objective criteria with other candidate countries.

A new era for Turkey and the EU had begun. In 2004, the European Commission finally recommended that Turkey sufficiently fulfilled the political aspects of the Copenhagen criteria, signaling the start of accession negotiations with Turkey. On October 3, 2005, the Turkish accession negotiations with the EU began.

Having said that, the Turkish accession negotiations have not followed an easy path, in the past eight years since the opening of negotiations; only 13 chapters out of the 35 on the EU acquis were opened. This was surprising as Croatia who also began its accession negotiations on the same day as Turkey has already completed its negotiations and is due to accede to the EU on July 1st, 2013.  In the Turkish case, the complications arose partly from diverging preferences of the EU members over Turkey’s accession, and partly from the very nature of Turkey’s accession.

For example, some EU members such as France and Cyprus vetoed opening of chapters based on their own reservations even though Turkey was able to adopt the EU acquis in some of these vetoed chapters. Matters became worse in 2006 when the European Council decided to suspend the opening of 8 chapters and adopted a bench mark criteria for the provisional closure of all chapters. Since 2010, no new chapters have been opened for negotiations even on chapters where the European Commission declares that Turkey meets the EU acquis.

It is without dispute or doubt that Turkey’s relations with the EU have been highly volatile. It has the longest standing association agreement and also the longest negotiations process. It is perplexing to see that even in areas where Turkey meets the EU accession criteria such as economic and financial matters, the opening of these chapters are blocked by individual members. The individual vetoes by these EU members have lessened the EU’s credibility in the eyes of the Turks who feel cheated by the EU. It is these mixed signals from the EU that have in turn impacted on the Turkish perceptions on the objectiveness of the EU accession process. On the other hand, given the changing economic and global dynamics, Turkey is increasingly valuable for the EU and this constitutes a clear material benefit for the Europeans to keep Turkey firmly anchored to the EU.

The stagnation of the accession negotiations is unfortunate as both sides – Turkey and the EU – have clear benefits from a closer association and an eventual accession. What is to be done in order to revitalize the process and increase mutual enthusiasm on both sides remains elusive. For starters, a more comprehensive vision on the Cyprus issue needs to adopted, which could be expanded by re-launching the accession process by lifting the individual vetoes. If the EU accession remains credible, the Turkish political reform process would gain a new momentum. Both Turkey and the EU benefit from Turkey’s accession, as Turkey would gain a solid anchor for its democracy and the EU would incorporate an economically vibrant, demographically dynamic and regionally influential country to its ranks, enhancing its global power.