Why Turkey has been entering Europe for 60 years

The European Union is falling apart before it can embrace Turkey as its 29th member. This is the reality in 2073, portrayed by Thaksin Yudzel in an anti-utopia of the risks to Turkish democracy.

The Skyscraper was released in 2006; and without Europe being a topic in it, the mentioned hypothesis describes well the long Turkish wait. A decade and a half later, however, the debate on the subject in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and Sofia sounded different. For example, Turkey is very big. Turkey is very different. Turkey is very … Muslim. Turkey could be a force in the union, shifting the center of gravity. And last but not least, Turkey is becoming more and more undemocratic, power is increasingly in the hands of one man.

Arguments for and against Turkey’s membership of the European Union have marked the European debate on enlargement, but have not been in the spotlight for years because negotiations have stalled. From politically incorrect to easily understood geopolitically, they are the thin thread that imperceptibly permeates the current debate on enlargement, because they are an important element in the answer to what the EU will be like in a few decades and whether it will be.

There has been no answer for 60 years. Turkey has been an associate member of the EU’s “father” – the European Economic Community – since 1963. It has been a candidate for membership in the bloc (now called the EU) since 1999. He started negotiating in 2005 but has not done so since 2016, after a failed coup attempt. The European Parliament called for a complete halt to the dialogue, which it received two years later: this was decided by the General Affairs Council (the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and European Affairs). Thirteen countries have been entering since Turkey began negotiations.

Why is the road so long and difficult for Turkey and what do they think about its EU integration?

A few facts

After 25 years of associate membership in the EEC (and a progressive customs union agreement signed as part of it), Turkey applied for full membership in 1987.

Of the 34 chapters, Turkey has so far managed to open only 16, of which only one has been closed (science and innovation). They are open to the free movement of capital, intellectual property, media, taxes, statistics, trans-European networks, the environment, regional policy, economic and monetary policy, and others.

There have been no talks for several years over the coup attempt. To a large extent, the dialogue also depends on the Cyprus issue. Eight heads have been frozen, six because of Cyprus (whose government Turkey does not recognize). Turkey cannot negotiate the freedom of movement of workers, goods and services, agriculture, fisheries, financial services, transport, energy (Ankara and Nicosia are competitors in the demand for gas in the same waters), the judiciary, education, foreign policy, and institutional development.

Two weeks ago, the European Parliament concluded that there was no reason to change its position from 2018, which called for a halt to negotiations with Turkey, given the departure from European values.

A visa liberalization dialogue has been underway since 2013, but Turkey has yet to achieve some of its goals.

Need a partner

However, the criteria for cooperation are not just technical: there are topics that the EU would not be able to do without Turkey, and it knows it.The most famous example was in 2016. Then Brussels and Ankara reached an agreement to curb the flow of asylum seekers to the Greek islands when the migrant crisis shook European politics. The aforementioned visa liberalization, together with a promise to renew the customs union and open a new chapter (33rd) during the Dutch presidency (first half of the same year), was among the promises made to Turkey to accept returns of Greek migrants. islands.

A refugee fund has also been set up in Turkey (which it does not formally call refugees) with a total of 6 billion euros provided for asylum seekers in the country. Of these, 4.2 billion have been distributed by 2021, and a new proposal was made for another 3 billion last year.

However, cooperation in migration has not been without problems since 2016; four years later, Ankara refused to return asylum seekers from the Greek islands. Ankara claims that the EU has not fulfilled its commitments to liberalization, customs union, and negotiations and that not all the money has reached it. After the last contracts for the fund were signed in late 2021, after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, it received more funds. At the time, Turkey insisted it could not be something like a “hotel” or a “warehouse” for refugees.

Does Turkey want to be in the EU?

Any progress on Turkey’s claims to the European family was unthinkable in the second half of the 20th century. Several military coups marked the country’s history since the 1960s, the latest being the so-called postmodern coup in the second half of the 1990s. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, created during the partition of the island, is still unrecognized by anyone but Ankara. Cyprus was not yet a member at the time, but military aggression deeply marked relations with the then EEC.

This continued for many years, almost until President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power.

Normalization did not begin with him: in 1996 there was a breach in the documents establishing the customs union to allow the free movement of goods. However, it was Erdogan who was seen in his first years in power as a reformer. He made it clear that Ankara has made its way to the EU. He reaffirmed his intentions by reaffirming his commitment to a series of agreed changes, the most important of which was the abolition of the death penalty in peacetime (in recent years, he and his supporters have been flirting with his return). Policies for Kurds and other minorities have improved.

Fifteen years ago, Turkey began fighting the “deep state” over an alleged plot against the government amid a conflict between institutions, which Erdogan saw as a threat to his power. Examples include the chief prosecutor’s decision to ask the constitutional court to shut down his party as a center of anti-secular activity, and tensions between him and the army that Erdogan refused to yield to.

This was followed by a rift with a once-loyal ally, the preacher Fethullah Gulen, a protest in Gezi Park in 2013, and a coup attempt in 2016, and with it pressure on institutions, civil society, and the media. Ankara began threatening Europe with “releasing” migrants in the wake of the crisis in 2015. In recent years, it has periodically heated passions with statements signaling that it is no longer interested in membership or sees no prospects in it. He later insisted he wanted to be part of the bloc.

Since last year, the turn in the West (and largely in Europe), with President Joe Biden coming to power in the White House, has been particularly visible, despite the scandals surrounding European visits.
By comparison, in 2017, in addition to the referendum on moving to a presidential republic, the Turkish leader called the Netherlands “remnants of the Nazis”.

What Turkey looks like for the EU (technically)

However, the messages from Ankara remain in words. The trend of decline in democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights have not been reversed. In a report last year, the European Commission said reforms had stalled in recent years. Relations entered a new phase in 2020 with tensions in the Mediterranean and the confrontation with Greece, which entered a new phase with the war in Ukraine.

Due to the Mediterranean crisis – the culmination of tensions between Turkish and French vessels, which entered a new phase along with the war in Ukraine – were the sanctions imposed on people and companies in the country in 2020.

The report lists several of the main issues:

relations with Greece (from the confrontation on controversial issues in the Mediterranean to how asserted rights to use natural resources such as oil and gas are defended);
the lack of a solution to the Cyprus issue (and even normalization between Ankara and Nicosia);
Turkey’s actions in “most of the surrounding regional conflicts, often at odds with the EU’s wider interests” – this includes military operations in Syria, and Ankara is launching a new LINK;
the operations of the Turkish army and police in the southeastern part of the country, which Brussels and the opposition say violate the rule of law, rights, and freedoms, despite recognizing Ankara’s right to fight terrorism; examples include the dismissal of dozens of elected mayors there and their replacement by government appointees;
the deficits in the work of democratic institutions and its deterioration in recent years, including the transition to a presidential system, have concentrated power in the hands of the head of state without clear mechanisms for balancing power and the prolonged post-coup state of emergency;
lagging in reforms, such as the administration, the judiciary, civilian control of the security forces, the fight against corruption and organized crime, and human rights;
the breakdown in freedom of expression and association;
Last week, the EP added to the list concerns about the independence of the judiciary, which could be used against political opponents. The fate of philanthropist Osman Kavala was the latest example.

None of this has stopped EU-Turkey cooperation in many areas, from climate to migration and health. Ankara is doing well in many areas, including agricultural policy and some competition issues, but that is not enough. The issue of the customs union, for the renewal of which the European Council has not approved a mandate, is particularly thorny.

Turkey insists it does not yet see the customs union as it wants it to be, and its current version, in which it does not participate in decision-making for it but only enforces legislation, does not work in its favor. From the EU’s point of view, it is creating barriers to the free movement of goods and restricting transport links with the Republic of Cyprus.

In the internal market cluster, for example – key to customs union and integration into the European single market – progress has been made on the movement of goods, but technical trade barriers remain, the European Commission said. Many professions remain closed to EU citizens, taking steps backward in social policy (such as cutting trade union rights). The latest report also points to the declining independence of the central bank, which helped fuel a crisis even before the war in Ukraine.

What Turkey looks like for the EU (political/practical)

Turkey is not just important for Europe’s security: it is also the EU’s sixth-largest trading partner (and for Turkey, the bloc remains the leading export market). The Turkish economy would be among the leading European ones. Even in the harsh resolution, the European Parliament thanked Turkey for being the country home to the most war veterans.

At the same time, no country has negotiated for so long.

The controversial points are many, arguments “for” and “against” have been listed over the years by various leaders.

Turkey’s economy is dynamic – or at least it was before the crisis. It could strengthen the EU and give it back its Brexit chance of being the leading economic power with the largest total GDP in the world. The internal market will grow with one of the most important interacting partners. Ankara’s entry will create new opportunities for the bloc and its relations with the Arab world, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, with many Muslim countries.

Turkey has a population of nearly 83 million. It would become the largest member of the EU along with Germany if it joined immediately, and in its hypothetical accession, it will be far ahead of Germany in years to come. This means the largest number of MEPs, but also a shift in the balance of power. The impact on EU decision-making would be significant.

In addition, some European capitals are worried: that the EU would reach the Middle East, bordering Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and this would drastically change European security. It would also be unthinkable to integrate it before resolving the dispute with Greece (or at least resolve it) and reaching an agreement on the island of Cyprus.

The “against” argument is often put forward by some politicians, mostly its Muslim population (although the state remains secular by the constitution). The topic of “Islamizing Europe” has been a favorite of populists for the past half-decade, but it is also a question of whether the EU is seen as a club of Christian states.

Today, however, the leading argument “against” Turkey’s admission is the state of democracy and human rights, along with the reversal of democratization since the turn of the century, and it has become the subject of negotiations even if they are not on the agenda. There have been conclusions in the scientific literature over the years that incentives – in the form of progress in negotiations – for Turkey would help it continue on the path to democracy, and that it was the stalemate in dialogue that contributed to Erdogan’s turn.

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