Turkey’s EU membership inches forward

Turkey’s EU membership inches forward

After a three and a half year hiatus, negotiations with Turkey on its accession into the European Union will reopen.

Negotiations with Turkey were supposed to occur in June of this year, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s handling of the Taksim Square protests postponed negotiations until the release of the European Commission’s Annual Progress Report on October 16 2013. With the release of this report and the withdrawal of German, Dutch and Austrian opposition, the way is now cleared for a formal reopening of negotiations.

However, reopening negotiations does not mean that securing EU membership will be simple for Turkey. Officially, negotiations have opened in the area of “Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments.” This is only one of the thirty-five chapters of the “acquis communataire,” the common body of rights and laws that form EU legislation. At least 33 of these 35 chapters must be satisfactorily closed before a state is allowed formal entry into the EU.

Only the chapter covering Science and Research has been closed since the beginning of Turkey’s bid for EU membership in 2005. Progress on more than half of the necessary chapters has been frozen by a combination of French and Cypriot vetoes on 10 chapters and by the EU itself on seven chapters. By contrast, Croatia, which applied for EU membership at the same time as Turkey, has completed its adaptation of the acquis and officially joined the EU on the 1st July 2013.

This can be partly explained by deep division among EU member states over the question of Turkish membership. At the governmental level, Merkel’s CDU has traditionally been against Turkish membership and instead favours a vague “privileged partnership” arrangement between Turkey and the EU. France, Greece, Austria and the Netherlands have also often voiced their disapproval of Turkish membership. This far outnumbers the states such as Britain and Italy that have been strongly in favour of an EU that incorporates Turkey.

The skepticism has been even more pronounced at the individual level. In 2010, Eurobarometer polls placed support for Turkish membership at a dismal 30 percent, with 59 percent being against membership and 11 percent registering as “Don’t know.” In only five states (Romania, Hungary, Sweden, Lithuania and Slovenia) were a majority of respondents in favour of Turkish membership. These figures are unlikely to have improved over time as the current economic crisis within the EU has cooled enthusiasm on enlargement as internal issues such as unemployment and immigration have taken precedence.

Continued concerns over Turkey’s patchy record on human rights, its non-recognition of Cyprus (which led Turkey to freeze relations with the Presidency of the Council of the EU due to the Cypriot assumption of the Presidency) and the feeling that Turkey is not “European” enough (in terms of culture, geography and religion) have also persisted since the beginning of the accession process. The rhetoric exchanged between Turkey and Europe at the height of the Taksim Square protests, which saw Merkel condemning Turkey for not conforming to “our understanding” of freedom, and Erdogan declaring his non-recognition of the European legislature has also left wounds that even the recent political glad-handing has done little to heal.

Perhaps the most alarming trend is that Turkey itself is cooling on the possibility of joining the EU. In 2004, public support for membership within Turkey was the highest of all the candidate countries at 71 percent. Since then, this figure has dropped consistently: to 49 percent in 2008, to 42 percent in 2010 and to 36 percent in 2012.

While frustration over the slow pace of accession can explain part of this, it does not tell the full story. Economically, Turkey has flourished while Europe has floundered. In the ten years from 2002 to 2012, Turkey’s GDP tripled from $231 billion to $786 billion. This had led to an increased sense of assertiveness and confidence on the world stage, as well as a sense that membership of the EU is not a prerequisite for a healthy economy especially if membership comes with considerable strings attached.

In many respects, Turkey is now beginning to believe that the EU needs them more than they need the EU. Erdogan’s declaration at the start of the year that Turkey was seriously considering abandoning its EU membership bid and joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has exacerbated these fears that Turkey is slowly, but surely, drifting away from the EU and orientating itself towards Asia. Unless the current reopening of negotiations ends in concrete progress as opposed to yet another false dawn the current strained relationship between Turkey and the EU may be heading towards a messy divorce.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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