The Different Logics Shaping Turkey’s Approach Towards EU Membership

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The anatomy of Turkey’s approach towards the European Union deserves a particular treatment at this time period, as Turkey has been formally negotiating its entry to the EU while the majority of Turkish people increasingly adopting skeptical attitudes towards the membership issue.

It is a paradox that institutionally speaking Turkey has come closer to the EU than ever, yet it is simultaneously drifting apart from the issue of EU membership psychologically. The basic EU assumption in this process is that Turkey should be aware of the fact that candidate countries need to meet all the criteria asked for membership. The accession process is not a typical negotiation process as one can notice between two independent countries. Instead, it stands for the hierarchical relationship between the Union and candidate countries. The EU is a community of law that operates on the basis of collectively shared principles, norms and rules. These are not open to negotiation. Turkey should therefore automatically accept whatever the European Union says on the issues directly pertaining to membership.  


This piece argues that the main reason why Turkey fails to act in line with such EU assumptions is that Turkish people are under the heavy influence of three alternative logics towards the membership issue, which are in a fierce competition with each other.


From a theoretical perspective, states comply with the norms of international organizations out of three rival logics. They act either out of fear, interest or identity. While the logic of fear would justify Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union on the ground of geopolitical and geo-strategic necessities, the logic of interest would legitimize such attempts on the ground of domestically formed national interests. The logic of identity, on the other hand, would offer justifications on the basis of ideational concerns.  


Logic of Fear

This logic assumes that Turkey aspires to join the EU or meets the accession criteria not because it finds them appropriate or in its interests, but because it is afraid of the EU and the negative consequences of being left outside the EU project. To this logic, Turkey would define the outcome of remaining outside the European Union, or being seen as non-European, as threatening. What happened to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century might befall to Turkey, as the majority of Europeans define Turkey non-European and thus a potential threat to Europe’s security and well-being. Turkey would only escape from this nightmare by becoming a member of the European Union. Here, Turkey would simply bandwagon with the EU in order to avoid the negative consequences of being seen as an outsider/threat.


This logic also suggests that Turkey would see the status of membership necessary in order to deal with the security threats emanating from its neighborhood, particularly to the East and South. The implication is that absent EU membership Turkey would not be able to cope with such threats on its own. To this view Turkey’s security would be enhanced if Turkey got away from the ‘zones of conflicts’ to its South, East and North and joined the ‘zone of peace’ to its West. 


Moreover, Turkey would have no other choice but to remain on the accession process simply because the EU would impose such an outcome on Turkey. Such thinking would suggest that the EU would do all what it can to keep Turkey on its orbit, for a Turkey that gets estranged from the European Union would be considered as a threat to European security.


Looking from this angle, Turkey would try to make sure that the accession process continues unabated. Otherwise, its security would be in danger. The last and the worst thing Turkey would like to see happen is that the EU perceive Turkey as being non-European and turning its face away from Europe.


Logic of Interest

The second logic that might potentially affect Turkey’s approach towards the EU would emphasize interests rather than fear. Turkey would aspire to join the EU or meet the accession criteria if she found this in its national interest, particularly in terms of economics and security, not because the geopolitical realities forced Turkey to behave as such or Turkey loved the EU.


Looking from this perspective, some circles would prioritize the ‘accession process’ while some others the ‘outcome of full membership’. The first would adopt the ‘process-oriented’ approach, whereas the second ‘outcome-oriented’. 


Their differences notwithstanding, these two accounts would unite around the point that bilateral relations between the EU and Turkey can no longer be defined in terms of enemy-like categorizations. The decades-long cooperation process between Turkey and the European powers have now been entrenched and will likely continue independent of Turkey’s accession to the Union. Turkey and the majority of EU members are allies within NATO. They share a tradition of long-term security cooperation against common enemies. There is no reason for the parties to view each other as potential security threats. How can one depict the EU as a threat to Turkey’s security while a substantial number of EU members regard Turkey as a European and friendly country? Besides, Turkey is strong enough to cope with the regional security risks and challenges. Turkey is much powerful than its neighbors in terms of material power capabilities. She does not need the EU to deal with them.


Therefore, neither the EU’s rejection of Turkey’s membership claims should make the EU appear as a threat to Turkey’s security interests nor Turkey’s refusal to seek membership and meet the accession criteria should catapult Turkey to the position of Europe’s main foe. 


The ones who adopt a ‘process-oriented’ logic of interests would likely embrace the following points. Firstly, they would not see the EU membership as an end in itself. Instead, the road to the EU would only be considered as a ‘means’ to the ‘end’ of a stronger, richer and more secure Turkey. The EU accession process would be one of the alternative strategies that Turkey could potentially adopt in its efforts to become a much stronger country. The EU membership would not be a question of necessity but a question of choice. Because the adherents of this logic would not commit to membership in the EU by heart, their cooperation would continue as long as this process accorded with their interests and strengthened their hands vis-à-vis other actors at home. Because they see the continuation of the accession process more important than Turkey’s eventual accession to the Union, they would do their best to make sure that the accession process continues.


Secondly, the adherents of this logic would not make a problem out of conjectural crisis-like situations to be experienced throughout the EU accession process. Their pandering to the rising nationalism at home would not prevent them from trying to reach an accommodation with the EU, for they see the continuation of the accession process in their interest.    


According to the ones who are predisposed to adopt an ‘outcome-oriented’ logic of interest, Turkey’s interests vis-à-vis the EU should be defined differently. Firstly, it is only through the status of membership that Turkey could protect its interests in relation to the EU. A seat around the EU tables in Brussels would empower Turkey in its dealings with EU members. Remaining on the accession process long would not endow Turkey with the capability of helping shape particular EU policies that might directly affect Turkey’s interests. For example, the Customs Union agreement that Turkey signed with the EU in 1995 has not served Turkey’s interests simply because Turkey cannot participate in the formulation and implementation of EU’s economic policies. Secondly, the European Union should judge Turkey’s suitability for membership on the basis of Turkey’s potential contribution to European security interests measured in terms of hard power capabilities.


Thirdly, these circles would try to justify Turkey’s EU membership on the basis of the dangers that might potentially surface if the EU kept Turkey outside the EU. They would simply try to demonstrate what the EU would likely lose if they did not admit Turkey into membership. To this view, Turkey’s significance would stem from her nuisance value. They would try to frighten the EU with the possibility of Turkey’s estrangement from the EU for good. 


The adherents of this logic would often argue that the EU should not treat Turkey, a country of 70 million inhabitants and a strong economic and geopolitical powerhouse, the way she treats much smaller countries. “How can the EU put Turkey and the Greek Cypriot Administration into the same basket?” is a typical reaction that these circles evince. 


Logic of Identity 

The third logic that might potentially explain Turkey’s approach towards the EU is the logic of identity. The adherents of this logic would likely make the following points. Firstly, If Turkey claims that she is a European and Western country, there is no way other than meeting the criteria for EU membership. To this view, EU-related reforms would be legitimate and appropriate. Secondly, the European Union is today the most important western international organization that defines the contours of European/Western identity. For Turkey to be considered as part of the European collective identity, Turkey’s membership in other western institutions, such as NATO and Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, would not suffice. Unless the EU admitted Turkey into membership, the credentials of Turkey’s European identity would always be under doubt. Thirdly, membership in the European Union would be considered as the final stage of the westernization/Europeanization process that was set into motion by the founders of the Republic. Looking from this angle, one would expect that Turkey does not dispute the terms of the EU accession process and meet the membership criteria unconditionally.


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