The challenges for Turkey and their application for EU Membership

After Turkey and the EU agreed a deal in response to the unprecedented migrant/refugee crisis that has caused havoc in Greece and a number of other EU countries, there has been some discussion on the possibility of Turkey joining the EU. However, I would argue that Turkey will not be joining the EU anytime soon and that its bid to become a member state may never materialise. Turkey’s application for membership faces considerable obstacles from the EU and from Turkey itself.

Turkey has stalled most of the negotiations around specific policy areas (or chapters of the acquis communautaire) for some time now. Re-opening them will require considerable effort, which is something that Turkey is not willing to do at present. For instance, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly behaving like Vladimir Putin, by limiting personal freedoms and human rights, imposing curfews on Kurdish areas and openly waging a war (including attacks on civilians) against Kurdish Turks.

In addition, Erdoğan is actively seeking to restrict freedom of expression, the press, and the secular tradition of Turkey. In the latest episode of a direct attack on the press, security forces stormed the newspaper Zaman which had criticised Erdoğan, resulting in a very pro- Erdoğan front-page the following morning.  

By entering into the European Union, Erdoğan would not be able to play Sultan. Turkey would become a western state where religion could not encroach upon public life and human rights would have to be respected in line with the European Convention. Membership to the EU would mean the reversal of Erdogan’s agenda of controlling Turkey and turning it eastwards.

Equally, the EU is very reluctant to provide full membership to Turkey for a number of reasons. The first point to consider is that if Turkey joins the EU, it will be one of the largest countries in terms of population, giving it increased voting rights in all EU institutions, including Parliament and the Council. These rights would make Turkey one of the strongest EU members in terms of political power and influence. Secondly, Turkey’s low income (at present it is poorer than Romania, the bloc’s poorest state), high inequalities and a predominantly agrarian economy, will require some of the greatest transfer of funds in EU history. This would include support from the Common Agricultural Policy, Regional/Cohesion policy, and the European Social Fund.

In other words, if the EU were to accept Turkey’s membership application, it would have to devote most of its budget to Turkey, making it one of the strongest member states in the bloc. It is therefore no surprise that the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Chancellor George Osborne have openly rejected the prospect. At the same time, Turkey’s hostile relationship with Cyprus prevents a serious scenario of full membership. However the Turkey-Cyprus relationship is secondary, it will actually be the key EU players, Germany, France and the UK that will oppose full membership for Turkey.

Another obstacle for Turkey is the country’s political, social and religious orientation. Being a predominantly Muslim country, which is experiencing a turn against secular Kemalism, Turkey will be at odds with a predominantly Christian and Secular EU.

Until the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2003, Turkey was a staunchly secular and pro-Western country. But during his time in office as Prime Minister and now as President, he has gradually turned Turkey into an ever growing Islamic-Democratic state. Islam is present in all aspects of society and public policy, influencing education, family law, women’s rights and LGBT rights. Erdoğan's agenda seems at odds with European values of freedom of press, human rights, and secularism. The autonomous nature of many branches of government, such as bureaucracy, the military and judiciary, make it near impossible to have a unified voice.

Despite all of this, Erdoğan remains one of the most popular politicians in Turkey, and it seems that the majority of Turks support him personally and his party in this agenda. Erdoğan is seen by many as a charismatic leader of a wider pro-Islamic movement in Turkey. Moreover, the ambitions of Erdoğan (and the broader AKP elite) to make Turkey a regional superpower, coupled with increasing anti-western and anti-US sentiments among Turks, will create more problems for EU countries; especially in light of the various conflicts playing out along its borders with Syria, Iraq and the wider Middle-East.

I believe that   Osborne was right to dismiss the possibility of Turkey’s EU membership in the near future, it is actually a question of ‘if’ instead of a question of ‘when’.

Dr Sotirios Zartaloudis

Lecturer in Politics
Department of Political Science and International Studies
University of Birmingham