The Republic of Turkey has for over half a century been enduring a crisis of identities and a struggle of political association between Asia and Europe, the two continents it has both influenced and partly ruled back in its Ottoman era a mere century ago. Indeed, the general impact that the country has on the foreign visitor is that of a sort of mix between the Asiatic and the European, owing to its culturally and ethnically diverse history, as well as the secular pseudo-European reforms its former ruler Ataturk enforced. This struggle, which manifests itself in its campaign to join Europe’s economic bloc, is far from over, and is hardly even close to any definitive resolution.
So why is it that this country, which straddles the crossing between Europe and Asia, possesses a wealth of geopolitical importance, and has numerous historical ties with Europe, is not yet a member of the European Union? The effort of five decades of struggle towards its ultimate goal in international relations seems neither to have been appreciated nor acknowledged, and has been met with indifference and reluctance by many European states and which can be seen generally in the European Union’s own procrastinating attitude.
The whole issue, though, has again been brought to the forefront this year after the refugee deal struck in March, in which Turkey agreed to take back and prevent any refugees from crossing into neighbouring Greece. In return, it would be given $3.3 billion in aid to help the millions of Syrian refugees, sending one refugee to Europe for each refugee taken back, and reviving talks of Turkey’s accession into the EU.
In reaction to the deal being made there were both those who praised the terms and called the whole deal vital to Europe and the curbing of refugee numbers, and those who criticised them and claimed the EU was giving too much away, particularly rivals of Turkey such as Cyprus, which vowed to block any membership plan. The deal, the critics said, was bound to collapse. It seems they were right; the deal looks to be collapsing before our very eyes. It was reported on 8 December that the EU has met only five per cent of its target, managing to resettle in Europe only 8,162 people of the 160,000 that it guaranteed, while Turkey itself has threatened to back out of the deal if its citizens are not granted visa-free travel throughout Europe, one of the many benefits of membership.
Delays and disappointment
The current process of its bid for EU membership has been a long and gruelling path for Turkey, dating back all the way to 1963, when it became an associate member of the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor of the EU. The full and direct application for membership was made in 1987, and since then there has been obstacle after obstacle, condition after condition, that Turkey was obliged to fulfil in order for the Union to even discuss the matter. In 2005, the accession talks finally started, and they raised hopes when, three years later, the EU declared the country to be a “functioning market economy” – one of the crucial conditions for membership. The only significant progress that has occurred since then is the aforementioned refugee deal early this year, with new hopes and promises that are waiting to be swept away. A policy area is opened for discussion every decade or so, but otherwise the process is painfully snail-paced. There was a sting of truth to former British Prime Minister David Cameron’s comment that Turkey would not gain membership “until the year 3000”.
As recent indications have shown, Turkey itself is indeed having doubts about whether the Union will ever grant membership at all; wholly expected considering five decades of constant delays and disappointment. Speaking at a ceremony in May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the EU of adding “72 benchmarks. These benchmarks newly came out. There hadn’t been these benchmarks beforehand.” In November this year, he even went so far as to directly remark that Turkey does not need the EU “at all costs,” and that “The EU has been procrastinating for 53 years…several membership negotiation chapters were opened but none were closed. If you are not going to conclude them, why open them in the first place?”
So why does Turkey persist in chasing after the EU? And why does the EU continue to give false hopes to Turkey if it seemingly has no intention of granting membership in the near future? The answer is simple: both parties need each other for their own political and economic interests, despite their membership process being in limbo. Turkey needs the EU – by far the largest economy in the world – to maintain the vast amount of trade imports and exports that it has with various European member states. The EU needs Turkey for its cooperation in the prevention of refugees from entering the continent and partly because the country is one of its top trading partners outside the Union.
To put it simply, they are both using each other, and they both know that if relations turn sour and are broken off, there would be more loss than gain. Nevertheless, Erdogan has stressed membership as a “strategic goal” and a “source of stability”, affirming its apparent necessity.
Turkey’s growing internal problems, terrorist attacks which point to instability and the crackdown on tens of thousands after the attempted coup, all provide the EU more of an excuse to reject Turkey’s accession.
Turkey, at its core, remains a country divided and confused, devoid of any solid identity: is it Islamic or secular? European or Middle Eastern? Anyone who has visited there has seen the shocking contrast in which half of society are religiously and culturally conservative and the other half are staunch liberals who look ever Westwards. When it comes to wanting to join its European side, the blend of east and west for which it is famed is now a stone in its shoe.
Currently, the scene being enacted is that of a lonely and inferior schoolboy, strong among his own peer group, but grovelling at the feet of a supposedly superior and secretive clique of friends who are reluctant to accept him into their fold. They know that they can make use of him, however, and so they lead him on, making and breaking promise after promise in the pursuit of their own interests, all the while assuring him that each initiation is his final one.
Turkey would do well to remember its eastern identity rather than begging for a European one that is neither recognised nor taken seriously, especially in the face of such tragedies in the region where it is needed most.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.