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Turkey’s Membership in the EU: Realistic or Merely Wishful?

Professor Bahri Yilmaz is the owner of the Jean Monnet Chair at Sabancı University in Istanbul. He was a visiting fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge and at the Center for European Studies  Harvard University. In addition to his academic experience, he has worked as the Chief Advisor to the Ministry of State for European Union Affairs in Ankara (1997-2002). His main fields of research and teaching interest focuses on European Union, International Political Economy, the newly emerging markets, and globalization.

“Utterly failed,” were the words chosen by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to describe the status of immigrants, especially those from Turkey, in a nation that has tried to dramatically change its stance towards minority issues.

Since September, 2010, the German and Turkish media have been debating over a controversial publication Germany Does Away with Itself. The author Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the German Central Bank and a center-left politician, describes in his book the danger of an integration-resistant Muslim community for German society in the coming years. Sarrazin claims that Muslim immigration and high birth rate among Turkish immigrants will damage Germany’s long term economic potential.

Merkel weighed in the discussion and publicly stated that “Muslims in this country must accept that Germany’s culture is based on Christian and Jewish values.” Her key ally, the Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer further put forward the controversial claim in Focus Magazine, stating that Germany must take necessary steps to “deal with the people who already live here and get tougher on those who refuse to integrate” before accepting more migrant workers.

Opinion polls and statements by leading European politicians confirm the fact that Turkey’s membership does not have wide support by most European citizens. According to the opinion polls conducted by the Emnid Institute for the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, 69 percent of interviewed German citizens are against just 27 percent in favor of Turkey’s membership in the EU. The 2010 results of the German Marshall Fund’s Annual Transatlantic Trends paint more or less the same picture all over Europe. The share of EU citizens who are in favor of Turkish membership has dropped to 23 percent from 29 percent in 2004.

The refusal or inability to integrate cannot be merely explained as unwillingness on the side of the immigrants; the German and Turkish governments also need to be viewed critically as a responsible actor for the conditions through which people have remained unable to fully integrate into German society.

Turkish workers began to immigrate to EU countries, mainly to Germany, 50 years ago; the number of Turkish immigrants reached almost three million alone in Germany in the 1980s. Most of these immigrants were unskilled labourers ready to accept any kind of job. In the 1960s the German government assumed that the so-called “guest workers” would return back home after saving up sufficient funds to build a better life in Turkey. Unexpectedly, a large number of these guest workers decided to settle down and many of their family members followed them to Germany. During the late 1970s the German government did not take the necessary steps to integrate the Turkish immigrants into German society. Even by the 1990s, when such immigrants had been living in Germany for over 30 years, it was still impossible for them to become accepted as German citizens. Throughout this time the German population has remained ignorant and prejudiced towards a people with whom they have been living side by side. Ghettos have sprung up and discrimination, violence, and isolation have plagued the Turkish community. Despite this overall negative picture, a small percentage of Turkish immigrants have broken through this web of prejudices and become members of the German Parliament and various segments of German society.

While the majority of immigrants were never fully integrated, the blame for this does not rest solely on German institutions. The Turkish side persisted in regarding the Turkish guest workers in Germany as an integral part of Turkey's population, an attitude that did not help the guest workers participate in European society. It is interesting to note that three million Turkish workers were unable to advocate their own political and economic interest in German society as taxpayers or German citizens. This is an equivalent number to the full population of many of the smaller EU member states. On top of their inability to advocate their own interest, Turkish workers could not help Turkey’s chances of attaining full membership in the European Union. Especially in times of economic recessions and increasing unemployment, the anti-migrant sentiment grew rapidly. Hence in recent years the negative picture of Turkish immigrants remains at best unchanged and has perhaps even worsened.

What Is It All About?

The story of Turkish-EU relations began with the application of Turkey and Greece for membership in the former European Economic Community (EEC) in 1959. Both countries were associate members of the Community, with the potential of becoming full members at a future date. Greece became a full member of the EU in 1981. Ever since, Turkey has been knocking on the EU’s door, and thus has been waiting as a candidate country longer than any other outsider. In April 1987, Turkey applied for full membership in the EU, but was rejected on the grounds that Turkey was not ready for the membership. Turkey tried again at the European Summit Meeting in Helsinki in December 1999. Finally, on October 3, 2005 the EU decided to begin the accession negotiations with Turkey under tough conditions. From the beginning the negotiations divided Europeans substantially, and some member countries have reacted with mixed feelings to the declaration of the Turkish candidacy. Many European newspapers and politicians criticized the decision of the European Council harshly.

One of the main arguments that wage against Turkey’s membership is the claim that it represents cultural, religious, and mental “otherness”. The argument that European culture is based upon a Judeo-Christian identity and a heritage leading back to Greek and Roman civilization implicitly argues that Turkey has no place in the European Union. However, this is not the only reason for the rejection of Turkey as an EU member. Turkey's membership under current membership regulations would, due to its high population, put it in a similar position in the decision making process as the leading countries in Europe. It would be represented in all European institutions at the same level as Germany, the United Kingdom and France, and would take up a dominant position in institutions and decision making processes.

Turkey is, however, the most economically disadvantaged country in Europe at the moment.  So many critics argue that Turkey’s membership could cause risk to the political and economic balance of the EU. It is certainly expected that Turkey will receive great financial assistance from structural, regional and common agricultural funds if present policies remained unchanged for the next 15-20 years. Additionally, it is argued that the membership will induce a massive movement of labour from Turkey to the rest of Europe and will increase European social welfare costs while decreasing the living standards.

In addition, Cyprus poses another major issue in the relations between Turkey and the rest of Europe. The EU made an unwise decision to accept the “Greek part of Cyprus” as a full member without unification of the North and the South parts of the island as the Annan Plan suggested in 2004. Since this moment, Brussels seems to have become a prisoner of its own policy. The 1963 “Association Agreement” stressed the fact that Turkey needs to extend the customs union to all new member countries which have joined the EU since 1996. In other words, Turkey should open its ports and airports to ships and planes from the Greek part of Cyprus. But Ankara states that ports will not be opened until the EU allows the northern Turkish part of Cyprus to trade directly with EU states.

Leaders of Turkish and Greek Cypriots have been meeting and talking for several years but have not reached any concrete results in achieving a final settlement over long standing issues such as the structure of federal states, property restitution, withdrawals of Turkish soldiers from the north, and security guarantees. As long as Brussels, in close cooperation with the United States, is not fully determined to make an acceptable commitment to finding a solution on the island, the Cyprus issue will remain a central handicap for Turkey’s membership aspirations.  The European Union should not allow both Greek Cypriots and Greece to take advantage of their membership in the bilateral issues concerning Turkey. The member states that are against the accession of Turkey into the Union should not hide behind the bilateral confrontation on the Aegean and Cyprus issues.

Turkey's full membership depends overwhelmingly on the definite support and positive votes by Greece and the Republic of Cyprus—the Greek part of Cyprus— in the final stages.  As long as Athens and Nicosia are convinced that Turkey can remain an outsider for the next two decades, the rapprochement process may force Ankara to continue making compromises on the Cyprus and Aegean issues while the Greek side need not pay any price. Moving from “fragile détente” over “constructive rapprochement” to “close partnership” will depend mainly on their goodwill and decisions as well as the full engagement of the rest of the European states. As long as Turkey is not ready to accept a one-sided consensus concerning the Aegean and Cyprus issues, neither Athens nor Nicosia will make any serious step forward.

Those who are in favor of Turkey’s membership state that Turkey could play a leading role as an energy corridor to help with the European Union’s energy security, because of Turkey’s proximity to the Middle Eastern oil states. Turkish politicians and experts have been tirelessly stating that the new role of Turkey in the energy markets would help it become a full member of the European Union. Furthermore, with Turkey, the Union could gain global power and strategic advantages not only in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region, but also in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Many feel confident in Turkey's great economic potential and that it is one of the new emerging markets.

Since the opening of the negotiations process between Ankara and Brussels in October 2005, the European public slowly recognized that Turkey may become a member of the EU in the foreseeable future. As a result, the public opposition to further enlargement became widespread, and so-called “European Scepticism” has gained ground. The world economic crisis further contributed to the “enlargement fatigue” in EU countries due to the fear of European workers being replaced by cheap labor from Turkey.

Looking Westward and Going Eastward: A Shift of Axis From West to East

From 2002 until 2005, the present Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkish government intensified the reform process in the country to match the entry obligations set by the EU. But after 2005, the government began changing its policy against the EU by slowing down the negotiations process and shifting foreign policy from the West to the Middle East. The Transatlantic Trend figures show that 34 percent of Turks think that their country should act alone in the world and that 55 percent of Turks assume their values to be very different from those of the West. Additionally the case of moving closer to the Middle East has remarkably increased in popularity from 10 to 20 percent in the polls within one year.

In its early years in governing, the AKP believed that the freedom of religious activities, such as the lifting of the bans on headscarves in universities and in public services, would have been widely supported by the European public and by liberal and democratic institutions in the West. On the contrary, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the headscarf ban did not violate the European Convention on Human rights. This, and other, unexpected decisions taken by the ECHR were disappointing to leaders and supporters of the AKP.

Throughout this period, the ruling party began slowly to distance from Europe. Because of the European Union’s unstable and confused enlargement policy against Turkey, the Turkish public started to believe that they could never become a full member of the EU, even if Turkey could fulfil all the entry obligations. As expected, the support for Turkey’s EU membership has declined to a low of 38 percent from a high of 74 percent in 2004. In fact, the government managed to make the most of the gloomy mood that had taken hold of the Turkish public and turned this shift into a constitutive part of its new foreign policy.  One of the reasons for this shift of policy from West to East by the current government is the shared faith and cultural heritage with the Middle East. These familiar social and political environments bring about a greater confidentiality and are sometimes more comforting than facing unpleasant and arrogant European attitudes. The AKP was born from an existing pro-Islam oriented party, and its leadership has been closely associated with movements in political Islam from its inception. In the early years of its government, the AKP leadership believed that without any political support from Europe, they would not be able to survive against strong military and Western-oriented forces in the country.

After their second election victory in 2007 and tremendous success in economic development, and especially through Turkey’s gain of membership in the G-20, the AKP government has become more confident and can follow more active and independent regional policy. The rapid economic growth from 2002-2008 has created a new class of Anatolian entrepreneurs called “Anatolian Tigers”, who are traditional and politically close to the AKP and separate from the Istanbul-based industrialist elite. With the backing of voters and with help from the so-called “new liberal” groups, the influence of military power on politics has been reduced remarkably.

This new economic class has taken ownership of an essential part of the Turkish media, allowing the AKP to hold a remarkable influence on the Turkish press. These changes in domestic policies have been reflected in foreign policy. With a growing self-confidence, Ankara has been improving ties with Arab countries, Iran, Russia and the Caucasus. Meanwhile, the good relations with Israel have been severed. All these developments may give a serious indication as to where Turkey’s may be moving in the future.

Nevertheless, if it is even out of the question for a secularist and Western-oriented Turkey to become a full member of the EU, an overwhelmingly Islamized Turkey integrated in the Middle East would have no chance at all. Turkey is widely presented as a model for the way democracy and Islam can work together.  But how can it be possible for an Islamic country like Turkey, which is itself under the threat of a re-Islamization process to play a guiding role for other authoritarian Muslim countries?

The Future Scenarios on Turkey’s International Relations:

We have four scenarios for the future role of Turkey in the region:

If Turkey enters the EU as a full member it will coordinate its political and economic activities together with the EU. This means that Ankara would be fully integrated in the European security, economic and common foreign policy spheres and it would follow policies in coordination and on behalf of the EU. This scenario seems to be the most optimistic, but also the most unpredictable outcome. We cannot expect for Turkey to become a full member of the EU as longs as the present political generation in the EU remains in power.

If Turkey fails to become a full member of the EU, for whatever reasons, it will be integrated into the European Economic Union, will remain in the NATO and continue its “Europeanization” process. In this case of non-EU membership there are two possible options:

First, Turkey could become a privileged partner of Europe. That is, Turkey would become fully integrated in the European Economic Union but not in the Political Union. This is an irrelevant scenario, because Turkey has already gained a privileged partnership with the EU. Turkey is a member of the Customs Union and the accession process with Brussels has been continuing since 2005. This option has further been strictly rejected for the long run by the Turkish government.

As French President Sarkozy suggested, Turkey may become a full member of a Mediterranean Union, union comprised only of the coastal states of the Mediterranean Sea. The Turkish government did not consider this suggestion as a serious alternative to membership because the Union of Mediterranean doesn’t exist as of today and its existence is merely wishful thinking on the side of the French President.

A third possibility is that Turkey remains a perpetual candidate. In this scenario the negotiations process can continue forever more without a happy ending, letting Turkey hope against hope for the future.

A final scenario sees Turkey moving closer towards the Middle East and a strategic security partnership with the United States. In this scenario, the attention of Turkey’s foreign policy moves from the West to the Middle East. Turkey can follow independent foreign and security policies concerning its own national interests in close cooperation with the U.S. in the region. In the most extreme case it could become fully anchored in the Middle East with all the features of an Islamic society.

What Is Next?

The new active policy of the present government justifies some concerns that Ankara is coming closer to the final scenario, intensifying its economic and political relations in the region based on the idea of “zero problems with neighbouring countries”. Some commentators are sharing this pessimistic scenario and arguing that Turkey is following a hidden Islamic agenda that aims to keep a distance from the West. Ankara pursues a strategy which has been termed neo-Osmanism to re-establish the dead and buried Ottoman Empire in the region. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis argued in Wall Street Journal that “in a decade Turkey might resemble the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Similarly, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has claimed that “Turkey’s Islamist government is seemingly focused not on joining the European Union but the Arab League”.

Perhaps some EU countries would be grateful for Turkey’s new foreign policy, believing that it might be possible that Turks themselves no longer even want to demand EU membership in the future. If Brussels does not take any serious steps to keep Turkey in Europe by reinforcing their economic, security and foreign policy cooperation and reactivating the negotiating process in the coming years, it is obvious that both sides may provoke such serious consequences. If Brussels continues to act reluctantly and hesitantly and plays for time, the AKP government may change its foreign policy in a radical way in the near future.

As former German Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer warned Europeans in the Süddeutsche Zeitung recently, such a digression would lead stepwise to a total separation of Turkey from the West, and it could result in the estrangement of Turkey from its most important allies, the United States and the European Union. Interestingly, former US President Bill Clinton and the new President Barack Obama have drawn the attention of Europeans in their speeches in 1999 and 2009 against the exclusion of Turkey from the European integration process and advised them to anchor Turkey in the European harbour. It is obvious that Turkey aims to finalize its “Europeanization process”, which started officially in 1939 with the membership in the EU.

We all know now that a long road lies before the Republic of Turkey. This road is full of political and economic obstacles. In the long run, Turkey should follow a two-pronged strategy at the same time: Turkey should move with unbroken vigour to obtaining full-membership through the negotiation process and the economic integration in the European Single Market. Meanwhile, Turkey can also diversify its economic and political relations with the countries in the region. It is often forgotten that the political integration of Turkey in the EU requires a sustainable and stable economic development in the first place— in the spirit of Jean Monnet’s concept of political integration through economic integration. The EU can help accelerate the accession process by supporting reform process in Turkey with consistent and reliable polices. Ankara and Brussels have a lot of work ahead if Turkey’s full membership into the European Union still remains their common objective; yet if each can meet the other in the compromise, Turkey will surely have a brighter future.