“I would like to hear a clear declaration,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Poland last week. “If you want to accept Turkey, just do it. If you don’t want to, just say that.”
Erdogan was of course, speaking of Turkey’s bid to join the EU, a partnership that has been in the works for over 50 years, the longest a country has waited in order to join the transnational bloc. The issue has been much debated, and European officials have demonstrated an increased reluctancy to admit Turkey since the attempted military coup of 2016 and concerns over human rights violations. Tension between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdogan has led to a seemingly never-ending war of words; as each side states their commitment to the union, before then reaffirming that the decision has not been made.
Last month, during a televised debate before Germany’s parliamentary election, Merkel stated that she did not believe Turkey should become a member of the EU. But such a sentiment is not echoed by France or other leading member states, bringing the talks to a standstill.
Last week, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, affirmed that Ankara was determined to maintain the process of talks “regardless of all obstacles”, and the week before, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had spoken of normalising ties with Germany. Yet this week Erdogan again addressed the issue, claiming that “Turkey does not need Europe, but Europe needs Turkey”.
Amid such inflammatory rhetoric from both sides and increasingly strained ties, is it likely that Turkey will ever join the EU?
Behind the bid
The reasons for Turkey’s desire to join the coveted union are largely economic. The free movement of people, goods and capital has generally done wonders for the region’s economic growth; with the Euro the second most used currency in the world. Member states also receive funding from the EU budget, which can supplement state income from tax revenues in order to bolster spending and reduce public deficit.
Some political motivations are also present; already a NATO member, Turkey will have the additional diplomatic support of leading nations in Europe, presenting an undoubted advantage in coordinating its foreign policy with actors beyond the continent.
Does the EU want Turkey?
Turkey has sought to join the EU since 1959, with the 1963 Ankara Agreement passing the country through a preliminary stage in accepting them into the customs union. In 1987, the country submitted an application for full membership, which was deferred by the European Commission, citing political instability in the country. But the Helsinki European Council of 1999 proved a milestone as the EU recognised Turkey’s candidacy as equal to other applicants.
In 2004, Europe agreed to start negotiation agreements with Turkey, but the plans were continually dogged by reservations of EU member states on the issue. In 2007, Ankara stated that it was aiming to comply with EU regulations by 2013, a membership deadline Europe rejected. Erdogan later made it clear that Turkey expected its membership by 2023, on the 100th anniversary of Turkish independence.
But the tone has markedly changed since 2013, when protests in Taksim Square were repressed by government forces. Germany immediately blocked the start of potential talks, Merkel describing herself as “shocked” by the use of force against demonstrators.
Such criticism of Turkey’s treatment of government opponents has only intensified. The crackdown following the attempted military coup of 2016, which has witnessed the arrest of some 50,000 people, including journalists and human rights activists, warranted severe condemnation from the EU. Erdogan’s hunt for supporters of preacher and political opponent Fethullah Gulen, who he considers to be behind the coup attempt, was deemed an insufficient excuse for the never-ending state of emergency the country seems to occupy.
Turkey has fallen far in the eyes of the EU, evident by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voting to reopen its monitoring procedure against Turkey; a process it had previously exited in 2004 in order to be proposed membership. As Erdogan looks to expand his political powers via the constitutional referendum earlier this year, and the curbing of freedom of speech continues, today’s Turkey looks vastly different to the liberal democracy the EU had previously invited to join.
However, regional politics places the continent in a difficult situation. Aborting all hope of Turkey joining could result in Ankara opening the borders to the thousands of refugees looking to enter Europe; a situation Brussels would rather avoid. Additionally, as conflict and instability rage in the Middle East, Turkey poses as a useful gateway to ensure that the situation is contained. Should the talks be terminated, it would only exacerbate divisions in regards to foreign policy.
Europe also seeks to ensure that Ankara is held to the standards of secularism and liberal democracy it deems necessary for a modern state to occupy. Its disapproval of what is perceived as increasingly Islamist rhetoric indicates that the EU will not admit Turkey until it has aligned its national vision with that of the West. Should this occur, it would prove an asset to Europe: to present an example of a modern, secular but still Muslim-populated nation is likely to support their foreign policy rhetoric on other states in the region. Isolating Turkey by refusing it outright could push the country in the other direction; a risk Europe does not want to take.
Does Turkey want the EU?
The political landscape within Turkey has drastically changed in the past decades; as the previously default acknowledgement of the country as a secular state is repeatedly called into question by the seemingly Islamist influences of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party. As negotiations have dragged on, Turkey’s desire to the join the EU – both at a governmental and public level – appears to have waned.
Last year, Cavusoglu claimed that only some 20 per cent of the Turkish population still wanted to be part of the EU. The estimate was a marked decrease from the 55 per cent of people who. according to Eurobarometer, believed the membership would benefit Turkey the year before.
At a leadership level, the constant declarations by Erdogan and other senior Turkish officials that the country does not need the EU have seemed contradictory in light of their continued bid. But Turkey has also rebelled against the conditions placed on its membership, perceiving the state’s mass arrests and imprisonments as necessary for its national security. The vein of Islamist rhetoric that runs through some of its recent statements has bolstered Erdogan’s popularity among conservative elements of society, a source of support he cannot afford to lose, even for the sake of Europe.
So why does Turkey not take back its bid for membership altogether?
Despite Ankara’s claims that it could function without the EU, the evidence shows that it doubts that possibility. In many cases, this is not without reason; the country is struggling due to the influx of refugees entering through its border with Syria. Without the tentative promise that some refugees will eventually be allowed passage into the rest of Europe, and that Brussels will aid the country’s refugee projects, it struggles to think of an alternative. Its economic growth rate is flagging and inequality remains a key problem, both of which would benefit from joining the single market.
But Turkey’s bid to join the EU is also motivated by its desire to stay true to its secular history and ascend to Europe as a modern nation state. Its campaign to be considered among the rank of Western superpowers is almost an expression of a deep seated need for validation. Securing the position would also raise its prestige among other Middle Eastern states, setting it aside from the conflict on its borders and positing it as a leading Muslim nation; a role Turkey seems increasingly eager to occupy.
Turkey’s accession to the EU is unlikely to happen any time soon if at all, as both sides, especially Europe, show reluctance to accept the country as it currently stands.
Despite the rhetoric, Turkey constrains itself within its political and economic circumstances, fearful of how the situation would deteriorate if it were to turn its back on a long-awaited concession. Europe, on the other hand has no intention of bringing into its union what it nigh on considers an illiberal, authoritarian state. Instead, it will seek to use the promise of membership to align Turkey’s policies with its strategic objectives for the region, but not admit it until it has exceeded the basic accession criteria on paper.
Yet the question of EU ascension is only symptomatic of the greater struggle Turkey is currently experiencing, both inside and outside of its borders. As the country battles the Kurdish question, the Syrian conflict and the issue of human rights, its national direction ultimately struggles to be determined by its inability to reconcile its staunchly secular pro-Western past, with an as yet undecided, but increasingly different seeming future.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.