Will Turkey ever become an EU member?

Published 26.03.2018 00:00
Updated 26.03.2018 02:14

The Turkey-EU leaders' meeting will take place on March 26 in Varna, Bulgaria. While the EU accession process for Turkey is going nowhere, it can be said that the EU is trying to change the paradigm, stressing stronger cooperation in specific areas, such as trade, defense, counterterrorism and migration issues, instead of a full membership. On the other hand, Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik has already declared that Turkey would reject any deal for a closer partnership that did not involve becoming a full member. But how did we get here, and what does the future hold?2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Last March, the heads of the 28 member states and the presidents of EU institutions came together in Rome, where the founding six European members had signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, to celebrate and sign a joint vision for the future of the EU.

Turkey's path to EU membership started two years after the bloc's formation, in 1959, when it first applied to join the European Economic Community (EEC). Since then, Turkey signed the Ankara Treaty in 1963 with EEC, submitted a formal request for full membership in 1987, joined the customs union with the EU in 1996, became an EU candidate in 1999, and finally, in 2005 the accession negotiations started. Today, the momentum in Turkey's accession process is lost. Turkey has been waiting for its accession to the EU for decades now.

Today's picture

For Turkey, EU accession is bigger than just a foreign policy issue as it is a key political goal that has the power to create a change in various areas of policy. As described in TÜSİAD's (the Turkish Industry and Business Association) declaration for Europe Day 2017, the accession process became the driving force behind Turkey's transformation through reform. It also served positively in Turkey's relations with other regions. Turkey has become economically appealing and a reference for democracy for emerging countries. The EU accession process is an opportunity in terms of fundamental democratic reforms, a liberal environment and technical regulatory alignment.

Today, for both Turkey and the EU, the enthusiasm to proceed is low. Nevertheless, both parties are still in dialogue for progress even though there are major problems along the way. There are many issues, such as the acceleration of EU enlargement resulting in enlargement fatigue and the long process Turkey had to deal with; no other country has been kept waiting for accession and membership so long, the blocking efforts of Greece in the past and the acceptance of Cyprus as a member. Additionally, discussions over Turkey's human rights records, liberties and democracy created skepticism in many European capitals and the mooting of privileged partnership as an alternative for Turkey.

It can also be said that there was a change in the EU itself. Enlargement was not seen as a solution anymore, while Islamophobia was fed by terrorist attacks and by the refugee influx from mainly war-torn Syria.Turkey's accession negotiations have lost their momentum. This is not because of Turkey's reluctance or failure to comply with EU standards. According to Ünal Çeviköz, it has a more fundamental reason. Turkey thinks that the EU is not objective and impartial towards Turkey. On the other hand, I must add, it is not just about Turkey either. There is a major change inside the EU. The EU is preparing to embark on a transformation following Brexit. The European Commission prepared a White Paper with five possible paths for EU's future post-Brexit, as the bloc suffers from globalization, migration, populism, security concerns, and financial crisis.

Future scenarios

There are several scenarios for the future of Turkey-EU relations. According to Nathalie Tocci from the Brookings Institution, there are three possible scenarios: In the first scenario, there will be growing competition and conflict between Turkey and the EU. The EU will pretend there is an accession negotiation with Turkey. But even Turkey's supporters in the EU will lose faith in the long process. In the second scenario, Turkey and the EU will abandon the accession process and will reach a new framework for cooperation based on respective complementarities. But the EU will lose its leverage on Turkish domestic politics. In the final scenario, the EU will restart the enlargement process towards the East and Turkey will become a full member. In this case, the EU will feature a more integrated core consisting of the Eurozone or inner core such as Germany and France. Turkey will become a member but will not be its most central element.

According to the Dahrendorf Forum's report, Turkey and EU relations in 2025 will be characterized by an autocratic and geopolitically emboldened Turkey. In the first scenario, they will be able to maintain a functional relationship due to Turkey's rent-seeking behavior and EU's dependence on Turkey on various issues. In the second scenario, the EU is characterized by a less united, inward-looking EU with many domestic problems and less effective regional and global influence. In this case, the EU will lose its economic weight and its normative power as well. Turkey is characterized by political, social and economic instability and its diminished role in the Middle East. This is a catastrophe scenario where Turkey's accession is not even discussed. In the last scenario, Turkey takes advantage of the refugee deal but the EU lacks leverage and its disunity continues. The refugee deal may be a game changer but the analysis does not give much chance to Turkey's membership.

2018 started with a new and fresh spirit in Turkey-EU relations with the meetings between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu and his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel in Berlin. There is an effort from both EU and Turkish leaders to mend ties. However, there is a gap between what the EU can offer and what Turkey is willing to accept. Cooperation in specific areas instead of full membership is what is pronounced in EU capitals. In that case, U.K.'s agreement with the EU following Brexit can be a model for Turkey. However, as Ömer Çelik said in his interview with Reuters, Turkey will not even consider an offer of privileged partnership.

Turkey has waited a long time to be accepted as a member of the EU. Today both entities lack the enthusiasm to continue with the process. Inner dynamics and global security problems are some of the major reasons for this. In the short term, Turkey has a slight possibility of becoming a full EU member. But it will be unfair to say that this is only due to Turkey. This is also the result of the transformation inside the EU. The EU is preparing for the U.K.'s exit while facing many problems like refugee crisis, the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, right-wing parties and populist leaders. With such challenges ahead, the EU does not consider the enlargement of the bloc as its main strategy.

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