Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Crossing the Bosporus: Turkey’s Accession to the European Union

Mr. Missiroli will join the Center on the United States and Europe as a visiting fellow in December 2004.

Over the past few weeks the debate over Turkey’s accession to the European Union has become more intense—and it is likely to continue well beyond the European Commission’s progress report on Turkey next week. In fact, although the pending decision by member states is “only” about the opening of formal accession negotiations, the discussion has focused rather on the outcome (full EU membership) than the process itself. This is understandable in light of the enlargement record so far: All but one of the candidates who have entered into formal negotiations have ended up as full members. The only exception is Norway and in this case the Norwegians themselves decided against membership, not the EU. The main arguments made so far against Turkey’s accession can be grouped in three main categories:

  • Size: Turkey is too big, too populous, too poor, and too agricultural. Accordingly, a) its accession would bring all the major EU common policies (CAP and structural funds) to the point of bankruptcy; b) its voting power and political weight (in the European Parliament and the Council) would make it the key actor in the European decision-making process—all the more so if and when the new constitutional treaty enters into force; c) millions of poor Turkish workers and their families would flock into “old Europe,” thus aggravating already serious economic and social problems.

    Those in favor of Turkey’s membership (or at least Turkey’s bid for membership) object that a) whatever happens with the negotiations, those common policies will have to be radically reformed by 2013 anyway, also in light of the commitments made in the WTO framework; b) with a foreseeable 14% of the overall EU population by 2015, Turkey would remain a manageable political quantity in a Union of 30-plus members and, at any rate, the Union cannot apply double standards; c) immigration fears have always been largely overstated, as the examples of the late 1980s (Spain and Portugal) and current experience with the new members clearly show; d) similar worries about the size of Poland’s and Romania’s populations and their impact on CAP and regional funds were also eventually set aside as irrelevant; finally, e) integrating a young and dynamic country of 70 to 80 million consumers is a great asset for the ailing European economies. The immigration theme, however, is indirectly reinforced by the second cluster of arguments against Turkey’s membership.

  • Culture and religion: Turkey’s accession will lead to the “Islamization” of Europe. Such a development would jeopardize the nature and “identity” of the European Union and could also hasten the spread of Islamic fundamentalism among Muslim immigrants. For these reasons and others too, there is very little consensus on Turkey’s membership among EU citizens. This could also have lethal consequences for the ratification of the constitutional treaty as voters may be tempted to use these polls on the treaty to voice their opposition to Turkey rather than the constitution itself. It is not by accident that these arguments resonate most loudly in France and the Netherlands, i.e. the two countries that are likely to hold referendums early next year.

    By contrast, those in favor of a “yes” to Turkey stress that a) more than 12 million Muslim citizens already live in the EU and many more immigrants are likely to make their way into Europe anyway; b) Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina are predominantly Muslim countries and also “potential candidates” to join the EU, but nobody is objecting to them; c) Turkey is a fiercely secular state: Headscarves were banned in Turkish schools long before Paris had the same idea, and fundamentalism is still a fringe phenomenon; d) it’s the role of the political leadership to build a consensus for Turkey’s membership, as happened during past enlargements, and not simply to follow opinion polls; and, perhaps most importantly, e) the EU should refrain from unilaterally drawing a sort of “Huntington line” at its borders. Especially after 9/11, being able to point to an Islamic “success story”—in terms of both modernization and “Europeanization”—is in the strategic interest of the Union. The fact that this process is driven by an Islamic party with strong popular roots only makes the case more compelling. All this leads to the last (but not least) group of arguments against Turkey’s membership.

  • Geography: Turkey is not really in Europe, and is instead embedded in a very unstable and dangerous neighborhood, caught as it is between the Middle East and the Caucasus. Its accession would make the enlarged EU more exposed and vulnerable, and also potentially hold it hostage to narrow Turkish interests in the area. Turkey tends to have a “one-dimensional” vision of its security: The military believes its special role in state and society is to defend the nation against ethnic “separatism” and religious “fundamentalism” now that the Cold War is over. This in turn makes it more difficult to solve the issues related to minority rights, the prison system and law enforcement—issues that even NATO has not been able to address effectively.

    The opposite front objects that a) since 1963, Turkey’s European “vocation” has never been questioned by Brussels, and it would be suspicious to do so now; b) if the EU really means to become an active and reliable international player, it must engage in the Middle East and the Caucasus anyway: Doing so with Turkey in would increase its leverage and credibility and, at the same time, would facilitate taming the Turkish military; finally, c) a “no” to Turkey—now or in the very near future—would have extremely grave and negative consequences not only for the nearby region but also for European security interests. The potential backlash would be much stronger than between 1997 and 1999, at the time of the first rejection, and would reverberate in all the neighboring areas, adding to an already worrying state of affairs. Hence the inescapable imperative to reward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government for their reform efforts, and to keep the process going: The prospect of EU membership has become a formidable catalyst for both domestic reform and external restraint in Turkey, and it would be strategically suicidal to undercut this dynamic.

It is quite clear from all the arguments listed above that it is very much a judgment call, a quintessentially political decision based on a fair assessment of risks and opportunities attached to either option. To paraphrase a famous saying in international relations: “Where you stand depends on what you see.” It applies as much to Turkey as to the general future of the Union. Yet Europeans are deeply divided over this issue, which in part explains why the EU chose—in line with its traditions as well as achievements—to take a strictly functional approach (hence the accession criteria).

In the short term, each side should take into account the other’s most urgent priorities: Mr. Erdogan’s deserved reward, for instance, must not imperil the forthcoming European referendums. Accordingly, accession negotiations could be formally opened under the British EU presidency in the second half of 2005, but with a full commitment to eventual membership if all the conditions are met: No “plan B” or hidden reservations, in other words. The proposal aired by French Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to hold a referendum in France on Turkey’s eventual entry, although legitimate (there was one also on the eve of Britain’s accession) sounds at this point a little like a veiled threat that can only sour relations with Ankara. Yet again, if we have to go down this road, why hold a referendum only in France, why not an EU-wide referendum where all European citizens would have an equal say?

In the longer term, however, two potentially converging risks could materialize:

  1. On the Turkish side: Accession negotiations are a markedly asymmetric process, in which the EU sets (practically dictates) conditions, benchmarks and deadlines. This could become even more apparent if, as seems increasingly likely, the emphasis this time will be put on actual implementation rather than formal commitments. How will Ankara react? One wonders whether last week’s mini-crisis over the new penal code was just a storm in a teacup, sheer domestic political tactics, or rather a symptom of things to come;

  2. On the EU side: It is a constitutive element of the negotiation process that, sooner rather than later, candidates demand a target date for eventual accession. Failure to give a satisfactory response may bring the whole process to a major crisis, possibly to a Catch-22 situation in which further progress is hampered by lack of clarity over the end result.

It would therefore be sensible to start negotiations with Ankara soon while planning a review conference involving Turkey a few years from now, possibly shortly after Romania’s accession. By then, the EU will have digested its latest enlargement and, hopefully, put in place its new institutional set-up. It will therefore be ready to deal with a reformed Turkey and its “EUniqueness.”

Get daily updates from Brookings