Turkish Accession to the European Union: catalyst of European tension

Turkey’s accession application to the European Union (EU) raised numerous questions relating not only to borders and European identity, but also to the political role that the European Community sought to play on the international stage. In paradoxical fashion, Turkey’s candidacy contributed to the debate regarding EU identity. While the EU’s enlargements toward the East in the early 2000s sparked passionate debates regarding European identity and the European project, it was Turkey’s application that prompted the most intense discussions. The polemical character of this application can be explained by the profound questioning of the EU that resulted. While the Treaty of Rome (1957)—the founding treaty for the European Economic Community (EEC, the EU’s precursor)—had already indicated that any “European” state had the right to request membership, it did not point out what the adjective “European” entailed politically, geographically, or culturally. This institutional vagueness was behind the polemics surrounding Turkey’s candidacy.

Handshake between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Günter Verheugen during Erdogan’s visit to the EC, Brussels, October 17, 2003.  Photo by Christian Lambiotte. @ European Communities 2003. Source: EC/Audiovisual service.
Handshake between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Günter Verheugen during Erdogan’s visit to the EC, Brussels, October 17, 2003. Photo by Christian Lambiotte. @ European Communities 2003. Source: EC/Audiovisual service. audiovisual.ec.europa.eu

Turkey and Europe, an ambiguous relation

In Turkey, Europe is perceived as a complex of economic and strategic resources, as well as a reference. The Westernization project embodied by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938), was a foundational aspect of national identity, which truly emerged with the creation of Turkey in 1923. The European Community had drawn the interest of the Turkish state since the Ankara Agreement, which took effect in 1964. The heads of state and government of the six EEC member states of the time—Benelux, France, Italy, and the Federal Republic of Germany—sought to establish ties between the EEC and Turkey in order to develop the country’s economy and facilitate its subsequent membership in the European Community, which was planned to occur twenty-five years later.

The 1964 agreement provided for membership in multiple stages, including a customs union, which was ultimately signed in 1995 after stormy talks, and the signing of supplemental financial protocols, which were coupled with funds to support economic policies to upgrade the Turkish economy and foster its standardization with the EEC.

In the meantime, the Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Özal (1927-1993) formally addressed his country’s application for EEC membership on April 14, 1987. On December 18, 1989, this application was rejected by the European Commission (EC), which had been tasked by the European Council to study the issue. The EC believed it was premature to plan a new enlargement before 1993, due to the new obligations entailed by adoption of the Single European Act (1986). However, the end of the Cold War ended the postwar status quo, in whose shadow the EEC blossomed and developed relations of association with Turkey.

The EU enlargement process, factory for the ideal “European state”?

The fall of Soviet governments in Europe and the successive membership applications that resulted surprised the EEC. Between the desire to strengthen its own institutions and the need to have its states follow them, the EEC transformed into the EU through the Maastricht Treaty (1992), and undertook major structural reforms in order to deploy its competence in a growing number of domains. This raised the question of the membership conditions for Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs), whose economic system and political regimes were falling into decline. The definition of a “European” state—and hence European identity—was broadened as a result. While no particular pre-requisite had been defined since the Treaty of Rome for joining the European family, political criteria such as democracy and the rule of law had been integral to the discourse on the Community’s fundamental principles since the interest shown for the Inner Six by Francoist Spain (1962).

A genuine enlargement “doctrine” was not established until the end of the Cold War. This doctrine is embodied by what are known as the “Copenhagen criteria,” which were adopted at the June 1993 European Council, and specify the political and economic conditions that candidates must fulfill to join the EU. This list includes the presence of stable institutions that foster democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and minorities; a viable market economy that can contend with competition from the EU market; and the ability to take on the obligations entailed by membership, in other words the capacity to implement the rules, standards, and policies that make up the EU legislative corpus, as well as subscribing to the objectives of political, economic, and monetary union. The first criterion must be fulfilled before membership negotiations can begin. The Luxembourg European Council (December 12-13, 1997) validated Turkey’s eligibility without ensuring its accession, while CEECs and the Republic of Cyprus saw their negotiations begin or enter the preparatory phase. This decision, which was driven by the fact that Turkey presented insufficient political and economic conditions to consider accession negotiations, caused a diplomatic crisis between the EU and the Turkish government. This crisis was resolved by the granting of candidate status to Turkey at the Helsinki European Council (December 10-11, 1999), notably due to its geostrategic value as part of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

Turkey, laboratory for EU policy

As part of the enlargement process, the Turkish Republic had been evaluated yearly since 1998 in a report prepared by the EC. This report was designed to guide the decisions of the European Council, but was also a space for interpreting the Copenhagen criteria. The latter were relatively vague, and their assessment depended on the internal situation specific to each candidate country.  In the Turkish case, various elements, resolved over time or not, were the subject of criticism on the part of the EU: the practice of torture, the death penalty, the political and cultural rights of the Kurdish people, the right to worship of non-Muslim minorities, women’s rights, free speech, the role of the army in the country’s political life, and recognition of the Republic of Cyprus, whose northern part has been under Turkish military occupation since 1974. For that matter, it was this final element that slowed membership negotiations. The Turkish government refused to apply the Ankara protocol to Cyprus: extending Turkey’s customs union to include this state, as with other member states, would amount to de facto recognition of its existence. This refusal, coupled with the slowing of reforms in Turkey to adhere to European standards, prompted the European Council to partially freeze, in December 2006, the accession negotiations that had begun on October 3, 2005.

At the same time, a large part of European public opinion was opposed to Turkey’s membership for cultural and religious reasons. The integration of the majority Muslim and demographically important country would give it considerable influence in the decision-making process and European legislation. Despite the reforms adopted by Turkey, the hostility of the European public pushed governments to treat the Turkish application differently by adopting unprecedented measures, such as limiting Turkish immigration and implementing a hardship clause in which the EU could propose the suspension of negotiations in the event of persistent violations of the principles of liberty and human rights. The establishment of a “preferred partnership” instead of EU membership also received overwhelming support from certain political elites, both those in power and in the opposition; this proposal, which has not been pursued, continues to receive strong support from opponents to Turkish membership.

The enlargement process gave the EU an opportunity to establish its influence by encouraging candidate states to conform to the rules governing the Community in order to become members. As an integral part of this process, Euro-Turkish relations—and the tensions they created—contributed to the definition and identity of the EU’s role as an international actor and promoter of peace, democracy, and human rights, and tested the power of the EU both within and beyond its borders.

To quote from this article

Marine Pierre , « Turkish Accession to the European Union: catalyst of European tension », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 14/03/23 , consulted on 22/06/2024. Permalink : https://ehne.fr/en/node/21395


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Faucompret, Eric, Konings, Jozef, Turkish Accesion to EU: Satisfying the Copenhagen Criteria (New York: Routledge, 2008).

Yilmaz, Özcan, “Le processus d’adhésion de la Turquie à l’Union européenne. Effets sur les institutions, la politique et la société turques,” in Bruno Arcidiacono, Katrin Milzow, Axel Marion, Pierre-Étienne Bourneuf, eds., L’Europe vingt ans après la fin de la guerre froide. Nouvelle Europe, nouvelles Europes ? (Brussels/New York: P.I.E. Peter Lang, 2012), 235-247.