Turkey and the European Union

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
06 February 2013
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The EU membership issue seems to be no longer on Turkey’s political agenda, as both Turkey and the European Union have going through difficult times recently. Turkey’s attention has been over the last months fixated on the Middle Eastern related developments. The possible disintegration of Turkey’s neighbors to the south, namely Syria and Iraq, and the negative

repercussions of such a development on Turkey’s own Kurdish dispute have aggravated Turkey’s security concerns. Besides, Turkey has now entered an election period with three important elections to be held in the next three years, the municipality and presidential elections in 2014 and the parliamentary elections in 2015. Meanwhile, the AKP government has embarked on a political initiative to get rid of the so-called ‘Kurdish problem’ before the elections mentioned above.


On the other hand, the EU is in the midst of critical challenges as its members have been quarreling among each other with respect to the future direction of the integration process. Nationalism and protectionism seem to be on the rise across the continent, as influential members of the EU have adopted diametrically opposing views during the latest Euro-crises. While on one hand Germany and France, the two engines of the decades-long integration process, voice different solutions as to how the EU should cope with the latest financial crises, the United Kingdom on the other has been at a critical crossroad in terms of its future relationship with EU.


In such an atmosphere, two recent developments seem to have struck the attention of analysts. One is the long-awaited speech of the British Prime Minister David Cameron on Britain’s ties to EU, whereas the other concerns the remarks of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan on Turkey’s prospective membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Cameron said that if the conservative party won the parliamentary elections in 2015, the question of whether the UK should remain inside the EU would be put on the public referendum in 2017.


On the other hand, in response to a question in one TV program as to how Turkey views the relations with the European Union, Prime Minister Erdoğan implied that Turkey might seriously consider joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization if the EU did not take encouraging steps to revitalize the dormant accession negotiations.


What is common to both speeches is that the feeling of Euro-skepticism has been on the rise in two important European countries. It is now the case that the Brits are seriously considering to withdraw from the European Union, while the Turks are looking to other directions in such a way to compensate their frustration with the ‘not-ongoing’ accession negotiations.


Even though these two developments are not directly related to each other, they reflect the growing opposition to the current status of the EU integration process in two important countries. Both Brits and Turks want a loose integration process focusing mainly on economic and security issues. A multi-tier EU with members being offered the right of ‘opt-in and opt-out’ mechanisms seem to suit Turkey and the United Kingdom much better than a deeper integration process foreseeing the delegation of further sovereignty rights to supra-state authorities in Brussels.


Leaving the question of how a possible exit from the EU would impact British interests to another article, this piece offers a short account of the current status of Turkey-EU relationship and discusses why the idea of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization cannot be seen as a credible alternative to Turkey’s institutionalized relationship with the European Union.    


Following the beginning of the accession negotiations with EU in late 2005, a cooling-off period has simultaneously set in. So far thirteen chapters have been opened for talks, yet only one has been temporarily closed. No new chapter has been opened over the last two and a half years. Eight particular chapters remain frozen due to the Greek Cypriot veto and five has been blocked by France on the ground that they directly relate to membership.


While the former French president Sarkozy played the key role in this negative outcome, the Greek Cypriots’ obstinacy has created additional tension. Nicosia did not lift its veto on the accession negotiations while it held the EU presidency between June and December 2012. Turkey did not talk to the EU officially during this period.


Despite some recent attempts at helping revitalize the dormant accession process, EU’s ability to help shape Turkey’s policies at home and abroad has continued to diminish. Many still wonder whether the EU will regain the prerogative of being the number one external catalyst of Turkey’s choices after Ireland has become the new holder of EU presidency on Jan. 1, 2013, and Hollande replaced Sarkozy as the French president last year.


The so-called ‘positive agenda’ has not produced a radical breakthrough in bilateral relations yet. Despite the argument that this initiative of the EU Commission does not portend to replace the accession track, many seem to think that this is well a conceived European attempt at putting Turkey on EU’s orbit while negotiations are literally stuck.


The latest progress report of the European Union on Turkey, issued in late 2012, clearly demonstrates that the cooling-off is still continuing. Not only were EU’s criticisms of Turkey’s democracy performance harsh, but also the way Turkey reacted to the findings of the report reflected Turkey’s growing dissatisfaction with the accession process. Turkey has once again come under strong criticisms as regards the diminishing freedom of press, the failure to enact a new constitution, the longevity of the Ergenokan trials, and etc. Turkey’s reactions have been so harsh that it, among other things, had to prepare its own progress report. 


On the other hand, Turkey’s liberal circles have intensified their criticism of the government. The main argument they put forward in this context is that the ruling party does no longer need the EU perspective because the military has been to a significant extent depoliticized and AKP has strengthened its legitimacy after winning three consecutive parliamentary elections.


The Arab Spring has also made it clear that there is still a long way to go before Turkey and EU adopt convergent regional policies. Despite the fact that both Turkey and EU have principally supported the view that more representative and legitimate regimes should soon be instituted across the wider Middle East to replace the oppressive authoritarian rulers, the two have differed on some aspects. Turkey has adopted an assertive stance during this process, whereas the EU appears to have embraced a more circumspect attitude by underlining the negative repercussions of speedy regimes changes and strengthening of political Islamists. While Turkish rulers seem to believe that Turkey’s hour has finally arrived in terms of playing a lead-role in the re-constitution of the emerging order in the region, the Europeans have prioritized the protection of their ‘post-modern heaven’ from the aftershocks of regimes changes in adjacent places.


It is in such a mood that Prime Minister Erdogan pointed out to Turkey’s possible membership in the SCO. Many have rushed to the conclusion that Turkey is now fed up with the EU and wants to see its future inside the SCO. However, this piece argues that SCO can in no way be seen as a credible alternative to Turkey’s EU membership. Looking closely, it becomes clear that the prime motivation of the members of SCO is to help bring into existence a political-security block in central Asia with a view to seriously curtailing the ability of the western actors to penetrate to this region. Unlike the members of the European Union, SCO members have neither the intention of establishing a region wide integration process covering as much aspects of human life as possible nor the ability to unite around as much common norms as possible. SCO members are at odds with the developing human rights regime in the west and strongly support the principle of absolute state sovereignty. The SCO represents the togetherness of the politically authoritarian and repressive countries which views democratization and liberalization processes with disdain and contempt. Besides, offering Turkey the ‘dialogue partner’ status should not be seen as an indication of their willingness to accept Turkey as a full member. They still view Turkey as a member of the West, a strategic contender in central Asia and a staunch NATO ally with close strategic partnership with the United States. Besides, Turkey’s EU membership process has already passed the point of no-return despite conjectural tensions arising from political calculations of some European leaders. Unlike Russia and China, Turkey is not categorically against the ideas of ‘responsibility to protect’ and that regimes’ sovereignty and legitimacy should emanate first and foremost from their success in meeting the fundamental demands of the ruled. 


To put in a nutshell, as the European Union has been going through economic and institutional hardships and as Turkey has continued to grow economically, the attraction of EU membership has declined to a significant extent. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if Turkey turns its face away from the EU it will not be able to preserve its power of attraction across the globe. Turkey’s potential to be a source of inspiration for the emerging regimes in the Middle East might not materialize, if the country experiences a downward spiral in its democratization process and if the outside community perceives that this outcome has been mainly, if not totally, been informed by Turkey’s continuing disengagement from the EU accession process. It should not be overlooked that a great part of Turkey’s regional and international clout, as well as its hard and soft power capabilities, owes its existence to its strong links to the West, most notably the European Union. The bonds that tie Turkey to the West are more institutionalized and stronger than the dynamics pushing for closer political and economic relations with the members of SCO.


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