Enlargement Debate

Turkey and the European Union

, by Stéphane Wakeford, Translated by Kate

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Turkey and the European Union

Turkey’s European vocation has long been a cause for debate within the EU, especially since the election of the moderate Islamist Abdullah Gül as President of the Turkish Republic. The question of Turkish integration is, however, not new. Turkey requested to join the EEC in 1959, and in 1963 signed an association agreement which already made provisions for a potential Turkish membership to the EU in the future. Turkey applied, unsuccessfully, for candidate status in 1987, and since 1999 has obtained this official status; Turkey is thus recognised as having the (potential) vocation of integration into the EU, and its European character has been acknowledged. In 2004 negotiations for accession opened, which have progressed slowly since.

According to classical geography, only 3% of the Turkish territory is actually European; the rest lies in Asia (although 15% of the overall population is concentrated in the European part.) This portion of the territory seems nevertheless sufficient to argue that Turkey is European, as its official status as candidate demonstrates. On the other hand, it is difficult to oppose Turkey’s accession into the EU on the basis of geographical criteria since Cyprus, according to the canons of classical geography, is also not European.

Admittedly the comparison stops there since Turkey differs as much in terms of land mass as in terms of population. But geography is an extremely difficult argument to handle since it is an arbitrary construction which does not correspond to any tangible reality. Thus the Turkish mountain chains are only an extension of the Alps. Moreover, the European continent as such is only real in the physical sense of the term, since Europe (and Turkey) is part of the Eurasian plate. Hence the fact that in American primary schools, children learn about the five following continents: South America, North America, Oceania, Africa and Eurasia. But not Europe (!) since, in fact, no European continent actually exists.

The argument that Turkey is not part of Europe thus makes no sense geographically speaking. Moreover, it seems that the question of the European character of Turkey has already been resolved by numerous organisations: Turkey is a founding member of the Council of Europe, of the OSCE, and its football teams take part in the UEFA cup. Turkey is also a member of NATO, a Euro-Atlantic alliance by definition. Since Turkey is not part of North America, it can only be deduced that it is part of Europe.

A shared yet turbulent past

It is also difficult to argue that Turkey and Europe have separate histories, even if they are not completely shared. Turkey has bee a major European power for a long time, its conquests stretching as far as Vienna (but also out to Egypt and the Middle East.) In the nineteenth century Turkey was known as the "Sick man of Europe".

Admittedly Turkey has more frequently been regarded as an opponent, or even as a threat, than as a country sharing a common European destiny. But to consider the historically belligerent nature of Turkey’s relations with the various other European powers as sufficient to deny Turkey the right to integrate into the EU, would be to forget the initial vocation of European construction; ie. to integrate the opponents of old into a supranational structure in order to avoid war ever again.

A community of values: could this be possible with Turkey?

Over and above its peace-making mission, the EU sees itself as a community of values. Rejecting Turkey’s accession for as long as the essential values of the EU (democracy, human rights, property rights, freedom of thought…) are not respected is an obligation, but the universalistic character of these same values means that Turkey can ultimately succeed in making them their own. Only temporarily can the accession of Turkey be rejected in the name of this community of values. Even if a fair amount of progress still seems necessary, Turkey nevertheless seems to be on the right track; the recent elections have shown that democracy is alive and that the country is capable of resolving a serious institutional and political crisis via the ballot box. The accession of a democratic Turkey which respects human rights as a full member of the EU would be the most dazzling success of EU foreign policy, thereby demonstrating the effectiveness of ‘spill over’ and ‘soft power.’

It would also serve to show that the EU is not a “Christian club”. But there’s a fine line between that and thinking that the EU would thereby find favour with the Muslim world; that would be to forget that the Turks, even if Muslim, are not the favourites of their fellow believers, precisely because they are considered to be too Europeanised: consumption of Raki, poor Mosque attendance, lifestyles considered to be too liberal…

Turkey: asset or danger for EU foreign policy?

Turkey’s foreign policy also plays a role in the lack of affection between Turks and the rest of the Muslim world. Turkey is, in fact, allied with Israel and has always been a strong support for the USA in the region. A support which has led to accusations of Turkey being a second Trojan horse which, in the event of accession, would pledge the EU even further to the interests of the American super-power. But such a position can only result from a guilty conscience of Turkish foreign policy, which is more striking for its extreme independence than for any alignment to the foreign policy of any other power. This is evident, for example, in Turkey’s refusal to allow the US to use their airspace and bases during the second Golf War.

In fact, Turkey could turn out to be a geo-strategic asset for the EU, notably by allowing the Union to bring an end to the USA’s strategic monopoly in the Middle East and by giving it the possibility to control the flow of petrol and gas from the Caspian sea and the Gulf, thereby securing, in part, energy supplies for its member states.

However, integrating Turkey would also be a strategic and diplomatic challenge for the EU, since its borders would henceforth run alongside countries as dangerous or instable as Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Not to mention the fact that the Union would have to face a possible handling of the Kurdish problem since Turkey houses a significant community of this people scattered between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Turkey has not excluded the possibility of military action in the Iraqi Kurdistan if the latter supported the slight signs of an independence movement amongst the Turkish Kurds.

The problem of Cyprus: a thorny issue.

The other major problem is Turkey’s non-recognition of the Greek Republic of Cyprus. How could a country which refuses to recognise one of the members of the EU be integrated into the latter? This is the reason for the closing of eight of the thirty five chapters of accession negotiations last December. But the Cyprus problem is more complex than it first appears. In fact, the two parts of the island were supposed to reunify in 2004 and enter the EU together. But when the Turkish part of Cyprus voted in favour of the UN plan for reunification, the Greek part voted against. The latter therefore entered the EU alone, to the great displeasure of Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots.


Turkey’s European vocation cannot simply be denied. Moreover, we are obliged to recognise that all of the obstacles that could stand in the way of a possible accession could be overcome in the decades to come. The recent elections are proof of the evanescent power of the army, and reinforce the solidity of Turkish democracy.

It may well be an Islamic (not Islamist!) party which is in power, but it is one which sees itself as the equivalent of Christian democracy, and, up until now, it must be recognised that this party has done more in terms of democratising and bringing itself loser to the EU than any of its secular predecessors. The will to one day achieve integration into the EU seems to be the motor which will succeed for the first time in making Islam and democracy fully compatible in a Muslim country.

As a federalist, however, the burning question is not whether or not Turkey will meet the criteria to allow it one day to enter into the EU, but rather to ensure that, if Turkey does one day join our community, it will not be an obstacle to the achievement of the federal Europe we long for. It is this question which must guide our thoughts and our positions regarding Turkey.

Image: flags of Turkey and the European Union, source: European Commission.

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