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Turkey - European Union Membership

The rarely openly-spoken, but widespread belief among adherents of the Turk-Islam synthesis is that Turkey's role is to spread Islam in Europe, "to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683". This thinking parallels the logic behind the approach of chief foreign policy advisor in the Prime Ministry Ahmet Davutoglu, whose muddy opinion piece in the 13 December 2004 International Herald Tribune was in essence a call for one-way multi-cultural tolerance, i.e., on the part of the EU.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had long cast himself as his country’s modern-day sultan, restoring his country’s past glories and lands lost in the European carve-up of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. In recent months, Erdogan has focused his sights on France, a country once emulated by Turkish figures such as the country’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and now derided by the ruling Islamist AK Party. Over summer of 2020 Turkey had been extending its influence into West Africa, an area considered France’s pré carré (backyard) and where French troops are engaged in counterterror operations in the Sahel zone that includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad.

Turkey and the EU formed a customs union beginning January 1, 1996. The agreement covers industrial and processed agricultural goods. Turkey is harmonizing its laws and regulations with EU standards. Turkey adopted the EU's Common External Tariff regime, effectively lowering Turkey's tariffs for third countries, including the United States.

In December 1999, Turkey became a candidate for EU membership. On December 17, 2004, the EU decided to begin formal accession negotiations with Turkey in October 2005. Turkey and the EU formed a customs union beginning January 1, 1996. The agreement covers industrial and processed agricultural goods. Turkey is harmonizing its laws and regulations with EU standards. Turkey adopted the EU's Common External Tariff regime, effectively lowering Turkey's tariffs for third countries, including the United States.

On October 3, 2005, Turkey and the EU reached agreement for Turkey to begin negotiations on accession to the European Union. Turkey and EU officials began the process of screening Turkey's laws and policies in order to begin negotiating the individual chapters required for ultimate EU accession.

Turkey opened and provisionally closed in 2006 one EU negotiating chapter on science and technology. Another chapter on statistics was opened in February 2007, and two more were opened in June 2007. Eight chapters, mostly related to trade, were suspended by the European Council in December 2006 after Turkey declined to open its ports and airports to Cypriot vessels--a commitment Turkey made as part of the Ankara Additional Protocol and its EU customs union membership. Two new chapters were opened in each of the successive EU presidencies--December 2007 under the Portuguese, June 2008 under the Slovenians, and December 2008 under the French--bringing the total to 10 open chapters. A twelfth chapter on the environment was opened under the Swedish presidency in December 2009.

On 18 February 2008 the EU Council adopted a decision revising the principles, priorities and conditions contained in the Accession Partnership with Turkey (doc. 5815/08). The decision, which repealed and replaced decision 2006/35/EC, identifies renewed priorities for the Accession Partnership, on the basis of the conclusions of the Council on 10 December 2007 and the 2007 Progress Report from the Commission on Turkey's preparations for integration within the EU. In order to focus its preparations to the evolving needs of the process, Turkey should develop a plan with a timetable and specific measures addressing the new priorities. The Accession Partnership constitutes the framework for Turkey's preparations and provides guidance for financial assistance. The revised Accession Partnership will serve as a basis for future political reforms and as a yardstick against which to measure future progress.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in 2002 largely due to support from the pro-EU, pro-reform business community and urban middle class. Since 2005, however, the AKP-led GOT has lost focus -- distracted by contentious nation-wide local elections and other challenges to its reform efforts. The Turkish bureaucracy slowly chipped away at technical accession requirements which has allowed for the opening of 11 acquis chapters. Having eliminated all the low-hanging fruit, by 2009 Turkey's EU ambitions were at a make or break point. Turkish leadership must throw its weight behind controversial judicial and constitutional reforms as well as demonstrate a commitment to fulfilling the Ankara Protocol by opening its ports to EU-member Cyprus if Turkey was to avoid suspension of its EU bid.

Turkey faced a unique set of problems -- many of its own making -- since launching EU accession negotiations in October 2005. For the EU, Turkey represents an unprecedented ideological, demographic, and economic challenge. Religious concerns aside, Turkey's population would be second in magnitude only to Germany and represents roughly 75 percent of the combined total of the last 12 countries to become members. Turkey's GDP is over 50 percent of that same group and $200 billion more than its largest single economy, Poland. In addition to standard acquis requirements, Turkey has separate provisions laid out in the 2005 Ankara Protocol reflecting the GOT's refusal to open Turkish ports to Cypriot vessels as mandated under the European Customs Union. This resulted in the freezing of eight acquis chapters and the prohibition of any chapter being closed. Cyprus, France, Germany, and Austria held an additional ten additional chapters in unofficial abeyance as a reflection of their own domestic concerns. Despite these external challenges, Turkey's focus on its candidacy primarily waxed and waned depending on its own political climate.

As of October 2009, negotiations had been opened on eleven chapters (Science and Research Enterprise and industry, Statistics, Financial Control, Trans-European Networks, Consumer and health protection, Intellectual property law, Company law, Information society and media, free movement of capital and taxation) one of which (Science and Research) was provisionally closed.

The principal issues regarding Turkey's accession include

  1. EU believes there has been too slow of a pace for certain critical reforms within Turkey;
  2. the lack of a settlement of the political stalemate on Cyprus, including the continued reluctance by Turkey to open its sea and air ports to Cypriot commerce pending a political settlement, and Turkey's failure to live up to its agreement to extend the benefits of its customs union with the EU to Cyprus
  3. the debate within parts of Europe over the implications of the growing Muslim population in Europe - there is a consistent lack of enthusiasm in much of the EU about admitting a large, poor and Muslim nation - Germany and France proposed a special partnership for Turkey that falls short of full membership, but Turkish membership in the EU would show that the European Union is not a Christian club. It would be a club of European countries linked by values and aspirations.
  4. a perceived ambivalence toward the EU by the current Turkish leadership

EU membership is still regarded by officials at the highest level of the Turkish state as the ultimate way of advancing and modernizing the maturing democracy.

Turkish leaders have done a poor job of educating the Turkish public on the EU and the accession process. Politicians rarely discuss EU merits in their comments to the Turkish people, but instead choose to repeat one of three populist themes: Europe needs Turkey; Turkey will not accept anything short of full membership; and the government is making reforms for the sake of Turkey, not the EU. Accordingly, Turkish public opinion for the EU reflects this less than complimentary tone. Polling numbers have shown a drop in the percentage of Turks who think EU membership is a good thing from 55 percent in Autumn 2005 to 42 percent in Autumn 2008. By Turkish standards, these are still very high polling numbers. The same poll demonstrated that the percentage of Turks believing that EU membership would benefit Turkey fell from 62 percent in Spring 2007 to 48 percent in Autumn 2008. This reflects a backlash against European leaders who are perceived as using the prospect of Turkish membership as a means of creating a "pan-European identity," overall public ignorance of the issues, and growing level of Turkish disinterest.

Most Turks believe the Ankara Protocol has provided EU member Cyprus with an unfair weapon against Turkey in its ongoing bilateral dispute. While Turkey has not complied and opened its ports, the EU has not done enough to end the isolation of Northern Cypriots, something which is also called for in the Ankara Protocol. As a result, many Turks have come to view EU-justified reform efforts as futile so long as Cyprus can effectively halt the process with its one vote [EU decisions related to new membership require consensus].

Turkey's skeptical attitude toward the EU reflects a larger insecurity about its place in Europe and a perceived lack of European will to accept Turkey as European. Turks commonly refer to this fear as the "Sevres Syndrome" in reference to the 1920 treaty in which France, the UK, Italy, and Greece carved up the former Ottoman Empire. At best, Turks perceive a general lack of European political will to incorporate Turkey's large economy and population. At worst, the public fears that this hesitance is due to religious and ethnic prejudices.

The Kemalists are torn between achieving their goal of a European Turkey and, on the other hand, complying with EU reforms that grant greater social and political freedoms to the Islamists, who they believe have the agenda of turning Turkey into a sharia state. In addition, many of the required EU judicial and constitutional reforms simultaneously touch upon core political redlines of the Kemalists and Islamists and have met with resistance from both sides.

Some Islamists closely associated with the ruling AKP, see the EU as a proxy for reforming a secularist system that has traditionally suppressed Islamic parties and their supporters, namely changing party closure laws as required by the Venice Commission and eliminating headscarf prohibitions. Others in the AKP do not share the dream of the liberal western Turkey. Despite its branding as a pro-Western political force when it came to power in 2002, the AKP never had a strategic view of EU accession; rather, it had a tactical view of this process, where it viewed accession to shed its Islamist image, gain legitimacy in Western capitals, and curb the power of the secular military. Having thus made itself palatable for Brussel bureaucrats and liberal Turks alike, in 2005, just as Turkey was supposed to start implementing hard reform towards accession talks, the AKP dropped the EU process. Some say that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government believe that Samuel Huntington was right; that there is a clash of civilizations, except they are on the other side, with the Islamists, and not with the West.

Yigit Bulut, a top adviser to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, argued in September 2013 that Turkey should stop aspiring to join the European Union and focus instead on carving out a leadership role of its own in the Middle East without paying heed to the West. Writing in the country’s Star newspaper, Bulut, a former journalist, argued on September 25 that “the West, or the imperial order” as he put it had in the past drawn a roadmap for Turks for its own benefit but that Turkey should “immediately get rid of the European Union scenarios”, since the country could instead take on the leadership of the “new world coming into being in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.”

Bulut’s remarks come days after Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s Minister for EU affairs, questioned whether Turkey would ever enter the bloc, which it had aspired to for half-a-century, despite repeated rebuffs from some key European states including Germany. Bagis suggested Turkey would never join because of the “prejudiced” attitudes of current EU members, adding that the EU is in a “process of dissolution.” Recent opinion polls suggested that Turkish voters were growing wary of the EU, with support for joining declining from 74 percent in 2004 to only 44 percent in 2013.

Turkish analysts speculated that Erdogan might be about to abandon — either formally or informally — the country’s effort to join the EU. They say that would be consistent with the Turkish Prime Minister’s mounting irritation with the West over its failure to intervene militarily in the civil war in neighboring Syria, and his anger over Western criticism of his government’s hardline handling of last summer’s street protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, in which half-a-dozen demonstrators were killed.

The Commission's 2013 Progress Report on Turkey highlights a number of important steps taken by Turkey over the past 12 months, notably the adoption of a fourth judicial reform package and the start of a peace process to end terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country. At the same time, the report emphasises the pressing need to develop a truly participatory democracy, able to reach out to all segments of society, as well as the clear requirement to further amend criminal legislation and reform its interpretation by the courts so as to ensure respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These issues underline the importance for the EU to enhance its engagement with Turkey, especially on fundamental rights, so that it remains the benchmark for reforms in the country.

The accession process remains the most suitable framework for promoting EU-related reforms in Turkey. Therefore, accession negotiations need to regain momentum, respecting the EU’s commitments and the established conditionality. In this regard, the opening of chapter 22 (Regional policy), after more than three years of stalemate in the negotiations, will be an important step.

Reform efforts continued, notably with the adoption of an important judiciary reform package, the announcement of a democratisation package and the start of peace talks aiming to end terrorism and violence in the Southeast of the country and to pave the way for a solution of the Kurdish issue.

However, the political climate continued to be marked by polarisation. This translated into an understanding of democracy as relying exclusively on parliamentary majority, rather than a participative process in which all voices are heard, and finally in an uncompromising stance in the face of dissent and a failure to protect fundamental rights and freedoms. This was exemplified in late May and early June, when police used excessive force in response to a major wave of protests.

In addition, key provisions of the Turkish legal framework and their interpretation by the judiciary continue to hamper respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. Cross-ownership in the media and intimidating statements by politicians have made self-censorship in the traditional press widespread.

These issues underline the importance for the EU to enhance its engagement with Turkey on fundamental rights. It is in the interest of both Turkey and the EU that the opening benchmarks for chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) are agreed upon and communicated to Turkey as soon as possible with a view to enabling the opening of negotiations under these two chapters. This would significantly contribute to ensuring that the EU remains the benchmark for reforms in Turkey.

With regard to regional issues and international obligations, Turkey expressed support for a resumption of talks aimed at achieving a comprehensive solution of the Cyprus issue under the good offices of the United Nations. However, Turkey has still not complied with its obligation of full non-discriminatory implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement and has yet to remove all obstacles to the free movement of goods.

Turkey is a functioning market economy. In 2012, the Turkish economy slowed down to an annual GDP growth of 2.2% from an unsustainable level of around 9% in the preceding two years. The slowdown was partly induced by a tightening of monetary policy and was accompanied by a rebalancing of growth from domestic demand to foreign trade, a narrowing of the current account deficit and falling inflation. In the first quarter of 2013, the economy regained some momentum, but Turkey's financial markets and the Turkish lira have subsequently come under severe downward pressure in the context of anticipated changes in international monetary conditions, domestic political unrest and the civil war in neighbouring Syria. These developments underline the economic vulnerability associated with Turkey's still large current account deficit and they may put at risk the return to growth in the short term.

Turkey's alignment efforts with the acquis continued. Progress was particularly noticeable on free movement of goods, financial services, energy, regional policy and coordination of structural instruments. Significant developments were noted on establishing legal framework in the area of migration and asylum. Continued efforts are needed towards legislative alignment and increased institutional capacity in most areas. Further significant progress should continue on judiciary and fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security.

The signature of the EU-Turkey readmission agreement and the simultaneous start of the visa dialogue need to move forward.

EU accession negotiations with Turkey began on 3 October 2005. In total, 13 out of 33 negotiation chapters have been opened and one chapter has been provisionally closed. As a result of Turkey not having fully implemented the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement, the EU decided in December 2006 that eight negotiating chapters could not be opened and that no chapter could be provisionally closed until Turkey meets its obligations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced 24 January 2015 that if the European Union (EU) is opposed to Islamophobia, it must accept Turkey within its ranks. "We are testing Europe. Will Europe be able to digest and to accept Turkey, whose people are Muslims? If you oppose Islamophobia, then you must admit Turkey into the EU," he declared, saying that otherwise the EU is a "Christian club". Erdogan said "Turkey is included in NATO, OECD… And why don't you admit it into the EU? Then, the problem is elsewhere... Turkey is a strong country now and it will not come to the EU's door to beg [for membership]."

Key dates

  • September 1959: Turkey applies for associate membership of the European Economic Community (EEC)
  • September 1963: Signature of the Association Agreement, aiming at enhancing economic cooperation and achieving a Customs Union between Turkey and the EEC
  • April 1987: Turkey presents its formal application for membership of the European Economic Community
  • January 1995: Turkey - EU Agreement creating a customs union
  • December 1999: Helsinki Council recognises Turkey as a candidate country
  • December 2004: The European Council agrees to start accession negotiations with Turkey
  • October 2005: Start of accession negotiations
  • December 2006: The Council decides that 8 negotiating chapters cannot be opened and no chapter can be closed until Turkey meets its obligation of full, non-discriminatory implementation of the additional protocol to the Association Agreement
  • June 2010: Chapter on Food safety, veterinary and phytosanitary policy becomes the 13th chapter on which negotiations are opened
  • May 2012: European Commission and Turkey start the implementation of the Positive agenda for Turkey
  • June 2013: The Council agrees to open Chapter 22 on Regional Policy and coordination of structural instruments

In October 2015 Germany offered to support Turkey's faster track into the European Union on condition that Ankara helps alleviate Europe's growing immigration crisis. The European Union would offer at least $3.4 billion in aid, and concessions to Turkey in exchange for measures to stem the mass movement of migrants coming from Syria, Iraq and other war zones into Europe. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he would sign the so-called "readmission agreements" only if there is progress on liberalizing the EU visa regime for Turks.

A new push by the European Union to re-energize talks was prompted by the migrant crisis, which this year has resulted in the entry of an estimated 600,000 people from the Middle East and beyond, most of them through Turkey.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said "They announce they'll take in 30,000 to 40,000 refugees and then they are nominated for the Nobel for that," he said in a jab at Merkel, who had been tipped as a Nobel Peace Prize contender for her welcoming stance to refugees. "We are hosting 2.5 million refugees but nobody cares."

Erdogan said Europe’s offer of talks on EU membership was insincere. He said many of the European Union member countries fall behind Turkey in adopting EU rules and regulations. Turkey is ahead of many of these countries in terms of economic progress, but - he added - unfortunately, they are not sincere.

By November 2015 the EU and Turkey continued to enhance cooperation in the areas of joint interest, which support and complement the accession negotiations. Political dialogue on foreign and security policy continued, including on counter-terrorism, against the background of Turkey joining the international coalition against Da'esh. Cooperation on visas, mobility and migration was pursued in the framework of the visa liberalisation dialogue launched in December 2013. Turkey continued to provide unprecedented humanitarian aid and support to refugees from Syria and Iraq. A Joint EU-Turkey Action Plan for refugees and migration management was welcomed by the European Council in October. The Commission and Turkey agreed to step up cooperation on energy. Developing further close economic ties was also a shared priority and both sides agreed to initiate procedures in view of a modernisation and extension of the Customs Union. Good progress has been made towards the opening of chapter 17- economic and monetary policy which would underpin the envisaged high level economic dialogue.

EU accession negotiations with Turkey began on 3 October 2005. In total, 14 out of 33 negotiation chapters have been opened, and one of the open chapters has been provisionally closed. As a result of Turkey not having fully implemented the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement, the EU decided in December 2006 that eight negotiating chapters could not be opened and that no chapter could be provisionally closed until Turkey meets its obligations.

On November 29, 2015 the European Union agreed to a multi-billion-dollar deal with Turkey on migration to address the flow of migrants that had swamped both of them in 2015 as conflicts and instability in other parts of the world forced huge numbers of people to leave their homes. A summit in the Belgian capital, Brussels, drew Turkish and European officials to discuss a $3.2 billion aid package intended to help Turkey cope with the millions of refugees it is hosting. European Council President Donald Tusk said talks regarding Turkey's accession to the European Union will be "re-energized."

Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders hold Turks “you are not welcome here” in an 03 December 2015 video that took aim at Ankara’s hopes of joining the EU, Reuters reported. The most popular right-wing politician in the Netherlands, who is anti-Islam, Wilders surged in public opinion polls with his call for the closing of national borders in the face of the refugee crisis. In an English-language video posted online with Turkish subtitles, Wilders told Turks: “Your government is fooling you into believing that one day you will become a member of the EU. Well, forget it.” He went on to say, “You are not Europeans and you will never be. An Islamic state like Turkey does not belong to Europe.”

Ankara wants to be part of the EU by 2023, Turkey's ambassador to the bloc told a German newspaper. He added that Turkey belongs in the union and that it will be “unacceptable” if it fails to join. “The Turkish government wants to join the EU by 2023. That year the Turkish republic will celebrate its 100th anniversary. It would be an achievement for my country to become a member by that time,” Selim Yenel, Turkey's ambassador to the EU, told German newspaper Die Welt on 19 August 2016. He noted that the conditions for joining the union are not particularly favorable at the moment, but the situation may change quickly.

The situation became more complicated as EU and NATO leaders had shown reluctance in cooperating with Ankara in the wake of the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 15 July 2016. Another point of contention is the EU-Turkey migrant deal forged in March. It aims to handle the flow of asylum seekers being smuggled to the EU by returning “all new irregular migrants” back to Turkey. In return, Turkey was promised a visa-free regime with EU member states. However, visa-free access for Turkish nationals has been delayed due to Ankara’s anti-terrorism laws – which the EU deemed unacceptable.

Germany is home to about three million people of Turkish origin, the legacy of a massive "guest worker" programme in the 1960s and 70s and the biggest population of Turks in the world outside of Turkey.

Turkey's prime minister held a rally in Germany 18 February 2017 urging Turks there to support the referendum that would expand President Erdogan's powers. Tensions flared after German authorities refused to allow some Turkish ministers to campaign for a 'yes' vote in the April 16 referendum on expanding Erdogan's powers. Cem Ozdemir of the Greens, wrote in the Kolner Stadt Anzeiger paper: "I find it shocking that a Turkish prime minister has no qualms about taking advantage of our democracy while he and his henchmen make their opponents disappear behind bars," he said.

Erdogan strongly criticised Germany after Turkish ministers were barred from holding public rallies in two German cities, calling the ban a throwback to the era of fascism in Europe and Nazism in Germany. Erdogan also slammed German authorities for letting opposition to a 'yes' vote in the referendum hold rallies while preventing his emissaries from addressing expatriate Turkish communities.

Turkey’s membership in the EU seems almost unrealistic given the degree of political bickering between Ankara and certain European capitals, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said 18 March 2017 in a blunt statement. “Turkey is now further away from EU membership than ever before,” Gabriel told Der Spiegel in an interview, adding that he has always been apprehensive about Turkey’s accession bid, but “was rather a minority in Social Democratic Party [SPD].”

He also said that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when he was still Turkish Prime Minister, replied at the time, that he did not want to be accepted into the EU at all. He only wanted to orient himself to European standards in order to modernize his country. When Erdogan tried to force the Turkish military out of politics by means of the EU perspective, the EU had made the mistake of not opening the negotiation chapter on justice and fundamental rights.

Several SPD top politicians had distanced themselves from an EU accession of Turkey. "In the present circumstances, EU membership is completely excluded," said the SPD candidate for the presidency of the SPD, Martin Schulz, on the "Rheinische Post". And SPD faction leader Thomas Oppermann told the SPIEGEL: "If Erdogan with his constitutional referendum enforces, the President is given almost unlimited power, which is the reason for the accession of Turkey to the EU for an indefinite time."

Turkey expressed fury that German authorities had on 18 March 2017 allowed a pro-Kurdish demonstration in Frankfurt to go ahead where many participants carried insignia of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Some 30,000 pro-Kurdish demonstrators rallied in the German city of Frankfurt calling for "democracy in Turkey" and urging a "no" vote in the upcoming referendum.

Erdogan on 19 March 2017 launched a scathing personal attack against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing her of using "Nazi measures" in an intensifying dispute between Ankara and Berlin. "When we call them Nazis they (Europe) get uncomfortable. They rally together in solidarity. Especially Merkel," Erdogan said in a televised speech. "But you are right now employing Nazi measures," Erdogan told Merkel using the informal 'you' in Turkish.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 12:05:21 ZULU