Clasp of Nations: Turkey and the EU

BOTH sides of Turkey’s European accession debate have, to varying degrees, denied that the decision has anything to do with religion. The final outcome on Turkey’s accession, however, is very likely to become a defining moment in Europe’s relationship with the Muslim world. It will in effect decide whether Europe believes Muslims can be a recognized and accepted part of Europe.

The issue of Turkey’s accession into the EU provokes heated debate about everything from the technocratic – such as the nature of the European Union – to the melodramatic – a possible clash of civilizations.

The “No” camp includes the former French President Valerie Giscard D’Estaing and former Chancellor of Germany Helmet Kohl. A whole host of high profile politicians throughout the rest of mainland Europe have also waded into the debate putting the current leaders of the EU Member States, who are generally supportive of accession, under intense pressure.

Given the generally positive recommendations by the EU Commission, most analysts and experts believe that Turkey will be given either a “Yes” vote, with negotiations commencing some time in the middle of 2005; or a qualified “Yes” vote, setting out stringent criteria for negotiations and possibly clauses allowing for a halt to negotiations.


Turkey’s road to joining the EU began on September 12, 1963 when it became an associate member of the European Economic Community (EEC). In 1970, Turkey and the EEC signed an agreement that foresaw eventual full membership in the Community.

Even before becoming an associate member of the European Economic Community Turkey maintained a westward orientation as the cornerstone of its foreign policy, more recently seeking to join the EU has effectively crowded out all other policy considerations.

Turkey’s candidacy for the EU was formally recognized at its summit in Helsinki in 1999. At the Helsinki European Council meeting in December 1999 the Commission concluded, “Turkey is a candidate state destined to join the Union on the basis of the same criteria as applied to the other candidate states”. This led to ecstatic front page proclamations of “Tïirkiye Avrupalidir!” in the Turkish press, as they felt their ambitions to join the EU were being recognized. Its journey to join the EU however has not been an entirely happy one, the country has faced many hurdles, including economic and political crises and two military coups.

As part of the pre-accession procedure, the European Commission has reported regularly on progress made by Turkey in preparing for EU membership. These reports included pledges made by the Commission that if Turkey implements reforms set out under the Copenhagen Criteria it will in turn be given a date for start of negotiations. At the Copenhagen European Council meeting in December 2002 the Commission concluded that: “The Union encourages Turkey to pursue energetically its reform process. If the European Council in December 2004, on the basis of a report and a recommendation from the Commission, decides that Turkey fulfils the Copenhagen Criteria, the European Union will open accession negotiations with Turkey without delay.”

The Copenhagen Criteria mentioned in the report are a precondition to negotiations and require that candidate countries achieve:

* Stability of institutions guaranteeing:

– democracy

– rule of law

– human rights and respect for and protection of minorities

* Functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressures and marketforces within the Union

* Ability to fulfil the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union

Under the leadership of Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development (AK) Party, which has Islamic roots and sees itself as the Muslim equivalent of the Christian Democrats, Turkey underwent a period of intensive reform to meet the Copenhagen Criteria.

Several commentators have noted that it is a paradox of Turkish politics that the willingness to carry out necessary reforms to join the EU was undertaken not by the secular Kemalists but rather by the moderate religious camp.

Between 2001 and 2004 Turkey made 43 amendments in the Constitution, enacted 66 laws, implemented 8 harmonization packages, conducted 49 circulars and 29 regulations, and passed 1 rule book. Most notably, these changes included the abolition of the death penalty, an end to emergency rule in south-east Turkey, and the lifting of the ban on public use of Kurdish.

Many of these measures were considered highly controversial in Turkey and were initially resisted by the Turkish establishment In its annual report on the 6th of October 2004 when the EU Commission published its recommendations on Turkey’s accession, the Commission concluded: “In view of the overall progress of reforms attained … the Commission considers that Turkey sufficiently fulfils the political criteria and recommends that accession negotiations be opened.”

On the surface, based on the above analysis, the EU Commission and Turkey have demonstrated a clear, consistent and deliberate policy of integration into the EU over the last decade. Beyond the Commission’s reports and recommendations, however, lies a complex and vexed debate.


As the date for the decision on Turkey’s accession draws near, debate intensifies with opponents of the bid actively lobbying for the EU to reconsider the its approach to Turkey. In those countries where the debate has been most intensive, particularly France, Germany and Austria, the case for Turkey’s accession has not been made. Governments have done little to persuade their people that beginning negotiations with the aim of accession is in the shared interests of both Turkey and the EU.

The arguments presented by opponent’s centre around the following:

* Lack of historical perspective: Commitments made by Europe in the 1960s took place in a different context and were purely conjectural, say opponents. The question at that time was whether Turkey would enter the “Common Market”, which was exclusively economic in nature. It may be argued that these commitments were fulfilled when the European Union signed a customs union treaty with Turkey in 1995, giving it access to this market.

* Is Turkey a European State? The question being asked here is which civilization does Turkey belong to? It is argued that most of Turkey’s landmass is in Asia and that the Turkish people have their own language and culture that does not belong to the large family of European languages.

* Turkey is too large: Turkey’s population is 72 million which, except in the case of Germany, is greater than that of any of the existing European States. According to demographic forecasts by the United Nations, by the time of accession Turkey would be the largest state in the EU in terms of population. Opponents see two difficulties here. First that taking in a country as large as Turkey, just when the EU has admitted 10 new members, would overstretch the EU’s absorption capacity at a time when it is suffering from expansion fatigue. Second, smaller countries would see their decision-making capacity further marginalized leading to feelings of disenfranchisement.

* Too poor: The standard of living in Turkey is still far below the European average. Turkey’s economy, while having made substantial progress in recent years, is still largely agrarian. This would seriously impact Common Agricultural Policy. Much of the EU’s budget is set aside for poorer countries in the Union with significant agricultural subsidies; Turkey’s accession, it is argued, would be financially burdensome.

* Dangerous borders: The EU’s borders would extend to unstable parts of the world, including Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of central Asia. Furthermore, Turkey is a major drug trafficking route into the EU and home to a number of immigration racketeers. An alternative to full membership provides a buffer.

* What kind of EU do Europeans want: The former French President Giscard D’Estaing argues that “Europeans need to strengthen their identity. No ‘European patriotism’ can exist until European citizens realise that they belong to a single entity. The current uncertainty surrounding the European project and the scepticism with which it is viewed by European citizens is due to the project’s lack of clarity. Exactly which Europe are we talking about? Progressive enlargement has led to increasing unease. Where will this headlong expansion lead a European Union which is not yet properly organized, which is not very effective and which has dwindling democratic support from its population?” 1


Before 2002 objections to Turkeyls accession centred around its failure to comply with the Copenhagen Criteria. Since the reform packages under the Erdogan government the EU Commission on enlargement headed by Guenter Verheugen has concluded that the Copenhagen Criteria have been met As a result opponents have moved to periphery issues such as geographical location and population size.

In terms of location, Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, has a population of close to 10 million and is recognized as being part of Europe as official EU policy. Proponents of accession say a country’s population figures have never been a criteria to judge eligibility to join the Union, the question arises as to why this should become an issue with Turkey. Even so, a UN study reveals that within 50 years, nearly 100 million fewer people will be living in Europe based on existing membership.

The UN’s study on international migration population trends goes on to say that without the new arrivals, the decline would be even more spectacular with a potential decline of up to 139 million. In this area Europe faces a long term structural weakness that will need to be addressed. This will become increasingly urgent in time when presented with the economic challenge in the new century from the Far-East

The EU’s absorption capacity became an issue when 10 additional members joined the Union in May 2004. Given that full membership only occurs considerably after negotiations begin, in Turkey’s case this may be up to 15 years after start of negotiations, the impact of Turkey’s absorption has no immediate relevance to the recent addition of members.

On the issue of historical perspective, to say that Turkey’s application is being taken out of context is to deny the consistent pledges made to Turkey. The issue for the EU here is one of credibility, what ever context promises or previous agreements were made does not alter the fact that they were made. Reneging on these promises would leave the EU commission without credibility in dealing Muslim countries and to a degree some non-Muslim countries. It has become an inescapable fact that Turkish accession has become a litmus test in terms of relations with Middle East countries.

The Turkish government has said that talk of alternatives to full membership are out of the question, any refusal or significant change in the terms of reference would force Turkey to reassess its policy alternatives, seeking closer ties with the Turkic Central Asian republics or Middle East countries including Iran.

Issues pertaining to the identity and cohesion of the EU i.e. the creation of a Union that behaves in a similar manner to a nation state where its citizens have a clear perception of European identity must be looked at in light of the already expanded Union. Having increased membership to 25 countries one must assess whether discussions about identity are not merely romantic ones.

The question of identity raises many difficulties in many EU Member States, people in Britain are unsure of what it means to be British let alone European. It is difficult to see how offering a date for start of negotiations will suddenly make the average Latvian, Spaniard or Scotsman feel less European.

The role of identity, in particular developing a broad and inclusive cultural identity has a wider purpose and that is in relation to conflict resolution, an approach the EU is trying to develop. The British diplomat and political writer Robert Cooper suggests this possibility saying that in order “to find permanent solutions we may need to think in terms of re-defining identity. Only if a wider identity can be developed will there be a chance of constructing the kind of international community that may enable us to live with each other without war”.2

In the context of European cultural identity, Muslims will remain a problem so long as they are perceived as being one. Alternatives to this attitude with policy initiatives must be sought to address this. Interestingly this notion has been picked up by the centre right in France by Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy actually goes as far as proposing positive discrimination for Muslims in France – this could lead to some interesting possibilities especially in terms of relations with the wider Muslim world.

Postponing the start of negotiations or offering alternatives to full membership will have other detrimental effects from an EU perspective. It will undermine accession, which has been the most effective foreign policy instrument in well over a decade.

Use of EU accession has had some very impressive results. Steven Everts of the European Policy institute remarks that “Europeans should say, loudly and repeatedly, that no one else has managed to transform, in a peaceful and deliberate manner, the political system of a country as large and complex as Turkey.” 5

Turkey’s transformation since entering negotiations for EU accession has indeed been revolutionary. Whilst it has maintained a very close relationship with the U.S., the U.S. has not been able to transform Turkey or project its “values” in the way Europe has. These are real strengths that project EU influence in a way that has beneficial and lasting effects on the nations with which they engage, as Mark Leonard remarks “upon entering the EU’s sphere of influence, countries are changed forever”.4

Herein lies the paradox: in order to project power with the aim of global security and stability and to check unfettered U.S. power, the EU will have to press ahead in its present scheme of inclusion. In order to gain acceptance for its world view of a Kantian rule-based system, the EU will have to persuade more countries to buy into its grand scheme otherwise it becomes unworkable. How can one have a rule-based world where an insufficient number of countries are willing to follow those rules?

This does not mean, however, that one should continue with an ever-expanding EU resulting in a united nations of Europe, clearly accession can only go to a certain point beyond which alternatives such as associate membership or privileged partnership will have to be offered. This would result in a series of concentric circles with varying degrees of affiliation and speeds of transformation. The countries most likely to respond to such offers are waiting keenly to see whether Turkey is offered a date for start of negotiations.

Turkey’s accession will go a long way in answering the question “what kind of world order do we want” raised by Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. That is, a world based on rules or one where force prevails. In the near future this ideological debate will be won or lost in Europe’s immediate borders.

In the debate on what type of world order is desirable, there is a convergence of interests between Europe and the proponents of civil society in the Middle East Europe and the Muslim world can see shared interests in working towards peaceful solutions on a range of issues from climate change to regime change. Emmanuel Todd notes this trend when he asserts that Europe “cannot accept indefinitely the continuous disorder sponsored by the United States” and goes on to say that “Europe must maintain peaceful relations and a good understanding with the Muslim world in order to ensure its own peace”.5

A clash of civilizations would be catastrophic for Europe and the Middle East. Europe offers real alternatives to violent regime change and disorder promulgated by the U.S. The propagation of civil society and peaceful transformation away from dictatorial regimes has never been more urgent in the Muslim world, this is a real possibility by fostering good relations between an EU that includes Turkey and the Muslim world.


Hopes for Turkey’s positive involvement in the rest of the Muslim world can be overstated; however there are grounds for optimism. Joschka Fischer sums up this optimism when he said that it would be like a D-day against extremism. The ruling AK party has Islamic roots that are based on compassionate religious conservatism – they represent a world view in which basic principles shared by the West and the Muslim world converge, principles such as the Copenhagen Political Criteria, the implementation of which can form basis of wider co-operation.

In very simplistic terms from a Muslim point of view the alternative routes to progress out of the political stasis that are available are the world view of the U.S. or alternatively that of “old” Europe. These different approaches are similar to the contest between the sun and the north wind. Perhaps in this contest there are lessons for which approach is likely to win the day.

The majority of the leaders of the EU are in favour of Turkey’s bid for a date to start accession talks. President Chirac said that Turkey’s membership of the EU is his “dearest wish”, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has also reiterated his support to Turkey’s accession.

In Turkey the Foreign Minister, Abdullah Gul, said he is not expecting any surprises at the EU summit on 17 December – to many Turks waiting with frayed nerves this would in itself be a surprise.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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