The will was an open demand in 1987, the year Ankara said it wanted to be a member of the European Union. An official bid for accession was made by Turkey to join the bloc in 1999; however, talks to discuss the membership were launched in 2005. Turkey was given a 10-year deadline to reform its political, social, and economic structure, an arrangement required to meet the European values and standards.
Thirteen years on, Turkey is still desperately struggling to make its way into the 28-nation union. This is while the two sides’ relationship is experiencing an unprecedented diplomatic chill. The uncertainty has drawn reactions by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who urged Europe to be clear on whether or not it wants Turkey in.
“I would like to hear a clear declaration. If you want to accept Turkey, just do it. If you don’t want to, just tell that,” Erdogan was quoted as saying during his visit to Poland on October 17.
There are some questions to ask: Why does not the EU accept Turkey as a member? Why does not EU come clear on the case? And why are the Turkish leaders, and on top of them Erdogan, still negotiating despite making no progress during the past 13 years?
Here are the drives pushing the EU members to withhold their green light to the Turkish coming on board:
Turkey is a Muslim nation
With its 80 million overwhelmingly Muslim population, Turkey will largely change the Union’s demographic composition if accepted. This is significant with regard to two issues: First, in the EU nearly all of the decisions are made through voting, with each country’s voting power is determined by the size of its population. The Turkish population is larger than those of the important member states of the Union such as France, Italy, and Spain. So, the country can outstrip their power in the bloc upon its accession. With regard to Turkey’s Islamic religion, this is hardly approved of by the bloc. The second issue is related to the religious inconsistency of Turkey with other members. In fact, by taking the 80-million Turkey in, the Christian Europe will redesign its demographic structure in favor of Muslims. In recent years, the 6 percent growth of the Muslim population in Europe has been source of concerns for the European leaders. Some events like the terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, and Britain even doubled the European security worries. Reports suggest that the Turks are the second largest ethnic group joining such terrorist groups as ISIS. On the other side, despite readiness to make large-scale reforms, the Turkish society remains resistant to accepting all of the European values. If it becomes an EU member, the conservative and traditional Turkey will still stand foreign to some of European standards. Therefore, the European governments believe that getting in a country with different culture and worldview will only add to the already-increasing EU problems.
One of the main issues put to discussion in the initial stages of the Turkish bid has been the political, economic, and social reform in order to be in tune with the Europeans. It remains a gap between the two sides, even now after over a decade. Turkey has done its best to meet the European standards, but human rights, in the eyes of the EU, remain a flaw of the applicant. Crackdown on freedom of speech, women’s rights, and rising influence of the religious doctrinaires in the society and power structure are also irritating to the EU. The European criticism of Turkey over political prisoners as well as jailed journalists continues to make headlines. This is even worsened as Turkey nearly two months ago arrested two Turkish-German citizens. The military leaders’ penetration to the government body and the last year’s failed coup attempt have considerably distanced Turkey from the Europe-eyed democracy.
Administratively, the Justice and Development Party of Turkey, despite Erdogan’s zeal to see Turkey a member of the EU, shows strong antipathy to the many of the European values that underpin accession standards. Also, Erdogan’s crackdown on the opposition, post-coup mass arrests, and the solidification of power after mid-April constitution amendment referendum all are on the collision course with the European criteria. The Turkish president also engaged in rows with influential EU members including Germany, Netherlands, and Greece. During the early March campaign for Turkish constitutional reforms, German and Dutch officials barred the Turkish ministers from speeches for Turkish nationals in their countries, signaling chill in bilateral relations.
Europe’s Geopolitical considerations
Although in many areas, Turkey has presented itself in the equations as a European nation, when it comes to accession the Turkish borders highlight themselves as a matter of division. Once Turkey is taken in, Europe will be directly linked to the West Asia, a region where the chaos is raging. After all, it has to decide to have a member like Turkey that borders Syria and Iraq, two hot spots of the region. The Turkish membership means that Europe has to protect a country that is under constant risk of coming under terrorist attacks. This puts excessive responsibility on the shoulder of the EU, and will highly likely lead the Union to direct engagement with the terrorist groups.
Ethnic minorities and the identity gaps are fundamentally divisive issues between Ankara and the EU. The Kurds of Turkey account for 18 percent of the country’s population. The EU persistently calls on the Turkish leaders to solve the decades-long conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) once and forever through political ways. But Ankara blacklisted it as a terrorist organization. The PKK attacks for nearly four decades played a major role in destabilizing Turkey’s eastern regions. The European bloc is worried that once Turkey joins it, the Kurdish challenge will be dragged into the heart of the Union.
Turkey’s rifts with neighbors
Turkey has a deep-rooted dispute with Greece over division of island country of Cyprus into two Turkish and Greek parts. It in the mid-1970s turkey launched an invasion into the island and involved in a war with Greece, a member of the EU. Thus, the Turkish support for the Turks of Cyprus and Greece is another source of discord between Ankara and the EU. Turkey also has dispute with Armenia dating back to a century ago. Yerevan argues that the Ottoman Empire, out of which the modern Turkey was born, committed genocide against the Armenians in early 20th century, something Ankara so far rejected to take responsibility for.
It is because of these obstacles and political considerations that the EU declines to accept Ankara at least in the short and mid-term. But the block does not give a one-off rejection to Turkey. This stems from the need for Turkey in various cases, including:
Turkey as a powerful NATO member
Since the Cold War, Turkey has been identified as the West’s ally for its alliance with the Western Bloc against the Soviet Union. Its links to the West qualified it as a member of the NATO. Turkey’s NATO membership is of significance to the Europeans for its military strength. Turkey’s potential membership of the EU will make the bloc enjoy an effective member on board, especially practical and weighty when it comes to confronting Russia.
Turkey as an energy corridor to Europe
Its neighboring the resource-rich countries of the region gives Turkey geopolitical importance for the energy-thirsty Europe. Turning down its membership bid could cause Turkey’s discomfort as the energy transit terminal and provoking it work against the European interests.
Brexit and EU discredit
The exit from EU of Britain as a top power is a big loss for the reputation of the bloc. On the other hand, other countries’ membership bids are source of validity restoration and balance to the EU. And so the longer time the accession process takes, the more attention the EU can call.
Turkey as a gate of security risks to EU
If the European countries fail to work with Ankara to deal with such challenges as the refugees, drugs, and terrorism, they have to expect political, security, and economic consequences. This makes the Europeans in need of Turkey. Making Turkey an expectant bidder will allow the EU to push Ankara for more accordance with the European policies. The recent Turkish arrangements in relation to the refugees have drawn the European, mainly the German, praise, and can result in success of Ankara bid. Otherwise, the Turkish leaders can play with the refugees, terrorism, and drugs cards against Europe.
In general, the EU finds the disadvantages of Turkey accession outstripping its advantages. However, the need for alliance makes the Europeans keep Turkey waiting. On the other side, Erdogan knows the above mentioned points, but he has his own drives behind chasing his dreams. First, being a European nation is an old wish of the Turkish people and its pursuit by the Justice and Development Party is especially crucial for the president. Second, Turkey’s secular parties as well as the military are still hopeful to see their country an EU member. The issue is present in the Turkish society as a social demand, with people believing that this status will highly improve their economic and social conditions. Losing the membership struggle will deal a severe blow to the popularity as well as political position of Erdogan’s party. Moreover, when it comes to trade with the EU, Turkey gains enormous benefit which certainly doubles if Ankara becomes a member. And finally, for long years, Turkey has very well identified itself under the Western identity. Westernization of the country was an ideology of its founder. Return to the West and friendly relations with the European powers links the Turks to nostalgia of Ottoman Empire’s climax. All these push to the conclusion that EU membership remains a top Turkish demand, and Ankara will press towards this aim despite the Europe’s unwillingness.