The European Union made three strategic mistakes: It did not accept Türkiye’s membership application in 1959. Türkiye applied for association with the European Economic Community (EEC) (subsequently renamed the European Community (EC), the precursor of the European Union) on July 31, 1959, only 19 months after its foundation. At the time, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu signed the application. However, the negotiations were cut off after the military coup in Türkiye in 1960. Years passed, and when the EEC received Türkiye’s re-application, and the Ankara Agreement (the Association Agreement) was signed, Türkiye began seeking full membership in the community. The process had three stages, preparation, transition and establishment of the Customs Union with the ultimate goal of full membership. The Joint Parliamentary Committee meetings followed one another.
With additional protocols for these or adjudications that entered into force or were abolished in the ensuing years, the EEC turned into the EC and later into the EU. With its umpteenth “temporary agreement,” the EU abolished customs duties and quantity restrictions for industry products imported from Türkiye or imposed new ones on agricultural products imported from Turkish suppliers. In the face of these confusing implementations of the EU, Türkiye promised to abolish tariffs gradually for industrial products of the EU and a 22-year timetable was set for the establishment of the customs union.
However, relations between Türkiye and the EU were halted when the European Parliament suspended the agreement because of the military coup in the country in 1980. Four years later, the Association Council reconvened, and Türkiye reapplied for full membership in accordance with Article 237 of the Rome Treaty, Article 98 of the European Coal and Steel Community and Article 205 of the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM).
Well, we all thought that was it; Türkiye, putting yet another military coup behind it, was on its way to becoming a European nation, 457 years after its first hurray into Europe. If one looks carefully at the history of the early Turkic states in Anatolia (Seljuks and Ottomans) one sees that their thrust was always westward to Europe, whether militarily, commercially or diplomatically. Turks always yearned to be part of the West, not the East. Professor Bernard Lewis, a British American historian specializing in Oriental studies, has shown, in his words, Türkiye’s “striking contrast with the other Muslim countries of the Middle East regarding Westernization” throughout its history. Consequently, when on Sept 15, 1988, the European Parliament made the decision to restart Joint Parliamentary Committee meetings, we in Türkiye rejoiced.
Finally, Türkiye was about to become a full member of the EC. The only hurdle was to conduct perfunctory adjustments to some laws and regulations, but those would be taken care of in what they call the Türkiye-EU Association Committee meetings. All those conformity issues regarding the EC laws would be solved quickly. After all, both sides seemed to be very enthusiastic about solving these adjustment issues. Türkiye had already adopted the European license plates and replaced millions of existing plates on vehicles. They looked European with the 12 gold stars on the blue rectangle on them.
However, who would have expected that the collapse of the Berlin Wall would cause the erecting of another wall on Türkiye’s route to full membership? In the last days of the Cold War, Western brethren wanted to reunite with their Central and Eastern European brethren first. Türkiye could wait; it had been waiting for almost half a century, anyway!
That, in my opinion, is the last historical and strategic mistake of the EU regarding Türkiye. It could have finalized Türkiye’s application with that euphoria. With the 100th meeting of the Türkiye-EU Association Committee, we began hearing about complaints that Türkiye’s wish to be a member would never be taken into consideration by the EU, particularly Germany. From this point on, the European Commission began telling Türkiye that its application for full membership could not be accepted before its economic, social and political developments are fulfilled.
Türkiye was having a new coalition government every four months in those years, and the EU membership was the last thing on its political mind. Yet, the people of the country had become sick and tired of those short-lived governments and after 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government brought about a new approach to EU membership. Parliament passed a law to establish the “EU Harmonization Commission” and the Council of EU Ministers adopted Türkiye's Accession Partnership Document-A National Program of Türkiye for the adoption of the Acquis Communautaire, application, coordination and monitoring of the National Program of Türkiye.
With this fancy title, the EU simply said it would see if Türkiye has sufficiently implemented the political criteria, then it would open the negotiations for EU accession on Oct. 3, 2004. Encouraged and reenergized, Türkiye appointed a government minister as the chief negotiator in EU accession negotiations.
Meanwhile, the EU was busy having 10 new members without paying any attention to political criteria; in that rush, the Greek half of Cyprus was accepted as a full member, representing “The Cyprus Republic.” That was the last straw in the series of historic mistakes of Europeans.
As far as Türkiye is concerned, there was no republic on the island of Cyprus: only two communities, Turks and Greeks. After the Greece-supported military coup, the Zurich and London agreements that had established the republic had stopped being implemented. Turks created their own republic in the north and the Greeks in the south. The Greek side had rejected the U.N. plan to restart unification talks in 2004. But the EU accepted the Greek regional government in the south as the sole representative of the now-defunct Cyprus Republic. Türkiye did not recognize the entity in the south, and Greece did not recognize the north.
Accordingly, Türkiye, in 2005, signing an “additional protocol” to extend the Ankara Agreement of 1963, concerning the 10 new members, published a declaration and stated that the signature of the additional protocol did not mean the recognition of Greek Cyprus. The EU published a declaration against Türkiye's declaration, stating that Türkiye must apply the protocol fully to all EU members; Türkiye said, “No way!” Then the U.N. came up with a new formula to include the proposal that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) be considered as part of “something” so that its isolation would be lifted. Later, Türkiye reopened its ports to Greek ships, so the endless meetings on chapters for harmonization of regulations restarted.
Ten years later, Türkiye had a government minister in charge of the once-again renewed and reenergized EU relations and Egemen Bağış, minister of EU affairs, was appointed as the chief negotiator with the EU. Seven ministers later, the Ministry of EU Affairs was dissolved to be replaced by the Directorate for EU Affairs, a subunit of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bağış is currently Türkiye’s ambassador in the Czech Republic.
After this long summary of Türkiye-EU history, one might expect that the relationships could have been soured somewhat. Well, no! Ambassador Bağış spoke with Czech media recently about the forthcoming “informal EU summit,” which is going to be hosted by the Czech government at Prague Castle. He expressed Türkiye’s hope to be among the invited countries for the meeting. The summit will bring together 48 European leaders. “As a candidate country, Türkiye must be invited,” Bağış said in an interview for Lidovky magazine.
Bağış, born in Bingöl and holding BA and MA degrees from the City University of New York, said Türkiye is expecting the invitation, “We have not yet received an official invitation for President Erdoğan to attend the Prague summit, but we are waiting for it.”
Until a few years ago, the candidate countries were invited to EU summits. Bağış thinks that this demonstrates European unity while encouraging the candidate countries. However, he added, that the EU is currently discriminating against Türkiye: six other candidates and potential candidate countries are regularly invited to EU-Western Balkans summits, but Türkiye, a candidate country since 1999, has not been invited to these summits or ministerial meetings.
With these three historical and strategic missteps, could the EU fix its attitude towards Türkiye? The Prague summit could be the right venue to show the EU’s willingness about this correction if it is ever going to make it happen.
At Prague Castle, the EU leaders are going to create what is called “the European Political Community” (EPC). It is going to be proposed as an interim step to full EU accession. Bağış said, “Not only as a candidate country but also as a European nation contributing in several areas, Türkiye and its representatives should participate in the EPC summit.”
I don’t want to blight Ambassador Bağış’s goodwill toward the EU for which he has worked as a negotiator of the government; he would naturally know what to expect and what not to. Diplomats sometimes say things that they don’t even expect.
Türkiye is still at least officially continuing to exist as a candidate country. The EU should not think that if it blinks its proverbial eye, Türkiye will disappear. It should close its eyes and think about what would happen when they have a Türkiye that is not a candidate anymore on its southern flank.