The myth of Turkey’s accession to the European Union

The Turkish one-in one-out plan

Turkey aims at using the migrant crisis to force its accession into the European Union. On 7 March 2016, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu stated Turkey would help the EU curb the influx of migrants flowing into its member states. Ankara declared its readiness to take back all refugees – who are not qualified for asylum- crossing into the EU from its land on three conditions: first, doubling EU funding through 2018 to help refugees stay in Turkey; secondly, ensuring visa-free access to Europe for Turks; and finally, opening new negotiations to accelerate the long-stalled Turkish accession process.

François Hollande promised to increase EU aid if required to deal with the migration crisis. Likewise, the EU promised to grant Turks visa-free travel as early as June 2016 since Turkey’s commitment to support the EU in this crisis depends on this visa decision. This concession infuriated a great number of right-wing European politicians who openly opposed free-visa travel for Turks to get into the EU. As for the Turkish candidacy to be an EU member state, Donald Tusk made it clear that Turkey’s bid would not succeed unless the 28 arrived at a consensus. It is worth remembering that Cyprus fiercely opposes the idea of accelerating Turkey’s accession to the EU as Ankara does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus; in addition France, Greece, and Austria are against Turkey’s accession. Tusk also reiterated that the EU had no intention of changing the strict conditionality applied for accession, that Turkey should work more to fulfil such conditionality. It is thus very unlikely that Turkey will become a member of the European Union.

The EU no-you-in plan

Since the “big bang” enlargement of 2004, accession to new member states has become a thorny issue in the European Union. EU member states, especially the so-called ‘EU-15’, have become jaded by the experience of enlargement, which has engendered an atmosphere of ‘enlargement lethargy’.

Turkey is currently seen by many as the least desirable country of the current five candidates for EU accession (Turkey, FYROM, Albania, Serbia and Montenegro). Indeed it could be argued that Turkey’s accession to the EU will have an undesirably profound effect on both the ideological and structural components of the EU. Hence many experts, among them Heinz Kramer, Princen and Lelieveldt, remain sceptical of the possibility of success for the pending Turkish candidacy as it has been almost three decades since Turkey applied for full membership. In 2012, as a response to this endless temporizing, the Turkish PresidentRecep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that if Turkey had not joined the EU by 2023, it would withdraw its candidacy.

Unlike other countries, Turkey has been waiting for 29 years without joining the EU.  Not only because it has not yet satisfied the Copenhagen criteria, but also because of its cultural, religious and geographical differences. For instance, Many Europeans do not view Turkey as a European country. Geographically speaking, Turkey is Asian as only 3 per cent of its territory lies in Europe. Bordering Syria, Iraq and Iran could be perceived as a potential security threat to a Europe of free movement and open borders, as recent debates within the EU attest.

There are institutional reasons too. Under the Lisbon Treaty, decisions in the Council of Ministers, the EU institution that genuinely represents member states’ interests in the European integration process, require qualified majority. Owing to the voting method applied in the Council the least populous states have less weight, and thus enjoy less voting power. Not only do the most populous EU states have more weight in the Council, but also in the European Parliament. The apportionment of seats allotted to each member state in the European Parliament is based on the size of the population. Thus, with a growing population of 79,285,597 Turkey in pure voting terms would be the most dominant country in EU institutions in the foreseeable future if it were an EU member state. This is surely a, if not the, major reason why France and Germany are against the adhesion of Turkey to the European Union.

Cultural and religious differences play an important role. Turkey is a Muslim country par excellence since 99 per cent of its population are Muslims. In culturally diversified countries such as France, the Netherlands and Great Britain people are likely to be more open to the Muslim minorities which constitute an integral part of their societies than in other EU countries. The hard truth is that most other member states express unfavourable views aboutIslam and Muslims. Many argue that Turkey’s Islamic culture is fundamentally different from that of Christian Europe.

In the area of geopolitics, there are also major differences which are emphasised by Turkey’s sheer size and large military establishment. Diplomatic differences are not uncommon between Turkey and the EU. For instance, the Turkish occupation or presence in the self-declared state of Northern Cyprus (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) is denounced by the EU. The opposition from core EU members and the failure to find a solution to the dispute over the divided island of Cyprus add fuel to the flames.

Furthermore, the issue of Turkish internal politics is of increasing importance in the debate. The Turkish application gets a lukewarm response not least because the EU believes that Turkey is not seriously committed to reforms. There are perceived to be still a good deal of impediments to the implementation of good governance, the reinforcement of democracy and the improvement of the economy.

Finally, the debate on Turkey’s accession to the EU brings up a seemingly answerable question in the European Union: What is Europe? The EU has generally eschewed providing an answer to this question or demarcating its border. Only once did it do so:, and that was in 1987 when the Moroccan application to join the EU was rejected on the grounds that Morocco was not geographically a European country. In these grounds, if Europe is determined by strict geographical criteria, the Turkish candidacy should not have been considered in the first place.

In any case, demarcating the EU’s border is not an easy task because of the often undefined objectives, contrasting interests and different historical experiences of the EU member states. For instance, unlike Germany, France might be more in favour of Morocco’s accession than Turkey’s.

It is important to stress that enlargement is not a problem for member states per se. European identity, however diffuse a concept, seems to play a bigger part. For instance, should Norway, which is seen as a European country in terms of identity, wish to join the EU, member states and their citizens would not probably oppose, just as they did not in the early 1990s when Norway was set to join, but rejected membership in referendums. Norway’s accession negotiations did not and would not last as long as Turkey’s. Because Turkey will probably never be seen as a European country in terms of its fundamental identity, I would argue, that Turkey will not make it into the EU block even if it satisfies the Copenhagen Criteria or helps the EU control the current influx of refugees.

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