Southern European Perspectives on Turkey’s Relations with the European Union

June 30, 2010


The complexity of European views on Turkey is often neglected, both in Europe and in the United States. European countries are currently divided on Turkey’s prospective membership in the European Union (EU), but along multiple lines. This paper discusses the particular perspectives of the three Southern European States, Spain, Italy and Greece, placing them in the larger context of European and Western views of Turkey. Southern European countries’ support of Turkey’s EU membership is often explained by parochial national or regional interests. The paper shows, however, that some of the arguments used by these countries in favor of closer relations with Turkey are also inspired by a more enlightened definition of national priorities that firmly links Turkey’s integration with the EU to broader European interests.

From a Southern European perspective, three particular visions of the European Union highlight the value of EU enlargement to Turkey: the EU as the embodiment of European democracy, the EU as an international power with growing stakes in development around and beyond its borders; and the EU as an ongoing peace and security project. In fact, the Spanish, Italian and Greek positions on Turkey and the future of the EU all share the view that security concerns and strategic interests demand the continuation of EU enlargement policy. The future strength of the EU depends on its ability to anchor Turkey’s economic development to the consolidation of Turkish democracy through EU membership. If the European Union succeeds in steering Turkey’s rise as a regional actor in a direction that creates more stability and peace around Europe’s borders, then this will give the EU greater influence in its broader neighborhood.

The paper also considers the larger picture, noting that the future of Turkish-EU relations has arguably never been as uncertain as it is today. Enlargement fatigue has been exacerbated by the most recent financial crisis. France and Germany are currently opposed to Turkey’s EU membership and Turkey-skeptics seem to be increasing across Europe. Growing skepticism in EU countries is matched by greater cynicism about the European Union among Turkish elites, who seem to be focused elsewhere. The debate on Turkey’s alleged drift from the West has intensified in recent months –– a consequence of developments that have been followed with great apprehension in Washington and European capitals –– such as Turkish-Israeli fraying relations and Turkey’s de-alignment on UN-mandated sanctions against Iran. According to a growing number of observers, Ankara’s recent foreign policy moves would show that the much publicized ‘zero-problems-with-neighbors’ policy is applied only selectively by the Turkish government, which seems to neglect that if Iran is an important neighbor, so are the EU and Israel.

In this context, the paper underscores the fact that EU enlargement to Turkey remains a prospect, not a development that will take place in the short term. In order to sustain this prospect, EU member states will have to decide whether the costs and uncertainties of Turkey’s integration into the European Union outbalance the risks of its exclusion and isolation. From the Italian, Spanish and Greek perspectives, losing Turkey presents far greater risks for the European Union and Europe than integrating it.

The paper concludes with an assessment of U.S. influence on Turkish-EU relations, highlighting both the limits and potential of Washington’s traditional advocacy of Turkey’s EU membership. It argues that closer coordination between the United States and the Italian, Spanish and Greek governments could prove very valuable. This diplomatic effort would complement, not replace, U.S. cooperation with other traditional supporters of Turkey’s EU membership such as the United Kingdom. Moreover, efforts would not be aimed at isolating Germany or France within the EU, but at addressing these countries’ concerns with a more comprehensive and satisfying set of arguments that would highlight the intimate connections between Turkey’s EU perspective, European democracy and security, and the future of the EU as an international player.

In this context, the United States should consider incorporating some Southern European arguments more prominently in its own discourse about Turkey. The traditional U.S. strategic argument about Turkey can be retained, but emphasis should be put not so much on roles recently questioned by Western commentators ––Turkey as a loyal ally of the West, the spearhead of Western interests and values in the Middle East –– but on Turkey as an inevitable part of Europe’s future. Further focus should be placed on EU enlargement as the instrument that will ensure Turkey’s rise translates into increased stability and power for Europe and the West rather than creating new challenges and competition around Europe’s borders.