The New Challenges Facing Turkey’s Accession to the EU: Federalism, Strategic Cultures and the Failure of Spill-Over?       

Cihan ERKLİ   –  Saturday, 24 November 2012 – BILGESAM STUDIES

The recent visit of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Germany could amount to a theoretical ‘reset’ in the otherwise strained and neglected Turkish-EU relations. Erdogan’s message was clear, Turkey is still dedicated to the EU accession process and, although the potential accession is hampered by many political and social obstacles.

Turkey would remain resolute in its now 50 year quest. However, Erdogan also reminded the EU that Turkey could be ‘lost’ and this process terminated if Turkey does not achieve full membership by 2023—the 100th anniversary of the Turkish republic. Angela Merkel—the German chancellor hosting Erdogan—stated that her party’s stance on the issue was well-known (1), but comforted the Turkish and pro-EU enthusiastic audience by stating that the relations between the two political bodies would continue regardless of immediate hindrances.(2)

However be that as it may, changing strategic, political and even economic environments put forward challenges that had never troubled relations before. The EU is facing immediate financial and monetary crises that are, according to many EU pundits, undermining the very political foundations—as limited as they are—this 27 member organization rests upon. Turkey, though relatively more stable in an economic sense, depends on the EU for its long-term economic prosperity and well-being. Yet more importantly, recent developments in Syria and the Middle East have allegedly collapsed the prevalent Turkish foreign policy narrative and Turkey needs to, both realistically and symbolically, re-anchor itself in a stable geopolitical base.(3)

The upcoming decade offers both challenges and opportunities for the two political blocs to ameliorate the effects of the past 5 years. EU statesmen and their constituent populations need to unwaveringly confront the inconvenient structural problem that began to display its chronic symptoms after the last great EU success with the Treaty of Amsterdam: the problem offered by the unpleasant reception of EU institutional deepening apropos EU federalism. The Turks, on the other hand, need to first really determine what they want their macro-identity to be, especially in an age where macro-level identities are emergent normative realities. The EU and Turkey need to realize that strategic cultures between the two are different but that these differences need not necessarily hinder accession negotiations. Finally—and most fundamentally—the two sides need to re-define, scope and provide a new spin to the seemingly outdated ‘spill-over theory’. Only after having done all of these could accession, either during or after the formal process, seem the most welcome and logical development for the next decade.   

Spill-Over & the Increasingly Federalizing EU

Many contemporary pro-EU advocates claim that the long-term goal of the European ‘forefathers’ was the creation of a United States of Europe, resembling the United States of America both in political design and with a European macro-identity. Though this claim seems a bit hasty now, the assumption behind such a conclusion relies on what is now known as the ‘spill-over effect’ in international relations theory. The spill-over effect, roughly put, would be a phenomenon observed within the various sectors of international cooperation between states. Inter-state cooperation in one sector would, due to trust-formation and increased communication, lead to cooperation in other sectors, hence the ‘spilling over’ of cooperation.(4) The European ‘project’ was launched in a strictly economic sense with European states cooperating in what was initially coal and steel production that eventually culminated with fiscal and, for many states, in monetary union.

European treaties provided the formal cornerstones for these achievements. Treaties were proposed and—depending on ratification by member state representatives and ideally their populations—ensured the legal status the EU needed to transcend the individual sovereignties of its member states. This is how, for example, EU law gained precedence over national law for many of the member states—save Britain for mainly technical preferences. The Maastricht treaty, the most important treaty for the EU, provided the functional, economic and political pillars for the EU. Other augmenting treaties, like the Amsterdam treaty, established the ever-increasing prominence of the EU parliament and institutions. However, these changes eventually backfired when popular referendums rejected the seemingly too hasty and overly ambitious EU technocrats with their ‘undermining of national-sovereignty’ measures. (5)

Unlike earlier attempts at successfully placating the upset populations, the cracks in the system were more severe and allegedly warranted then they initially led on. Many pro-EU pundits wrote off—and still  continue to do so—these popular qualms as minor inconveniences that could be attributed to insignificant anti-political squabbling of radical left or right political factions. This not only trivializes legitimate concerns, but empowers these radical factions perhaps more than even they could have hoped for. When the Constitution of the EU was rejected by the French and the Dutch populations—two very important nations of the EU—the EU could only retort with a watered-down version of this proposal with the Treaty of Lisbon. This too was initially rejected by the Irish, and even though a second referendum managed to gain a consensus  there, the EU’s ‘harmonious’ image with its constituent populations was damaged beyond repair.(6)

If these treaty rejections meant the EU loosing moral sway amongst populations, the global economic crisis bitterly tested the economic and formal powers EU bodies had over individual member states. The economic situation of the EU member PIGS—Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain—forced Brussels to intervene in state affaires once deemed far too national and, consequently, ‘none-of-the-EU’s’ business. Instead of backing down, pro-EU advocates stated that the economic crisis of the late 2000s, and the subsequent monetary peril of the Euro, could have been avoided if the EU had increased its legitimacy and power over individual member states; for the EU with a weak Brussels is far too much of a ‘confederacy’ than really a ‘federal’ union. Regardless of rhetoric, it is clear that ‘spill-over’ failed to induce the political and social changes desired. With the economic pillar under duress, the entire EU must reform and change its critical foundational assumptions or face—for the lack of a better word—its own demise. (7)

Beyond Ideology and Political Opinions: Strategic Cultures as Determinants?

The evident failure of spill-over and the polemical environment surrounding EU federalism are, allegedly , symptoms of a wider structural and contextual problem: individual member states—big or small—each have strategic cultures that conflict, due to historical or historicized developments, with the vast neo-liberal assumptions of the EU.(8) With this in mind, the EU could be thought as a post-modern project that—gradually—sought to change the strategic cultures of the Westphalian states that composed it. The spill-over approach of the neo-functionalist school was merely the ‘how’ to the ‘what’ and even ‘why’. Consequently, EU technocrats approached this vast-strategic transformation as they would to political change; strategic culture was underestimated as some higher form of political culture and, thus, not given the consideration it deserved. (9)

The challenges presented by the strategic cultures of states burgeoned when the ‘top-down’ heavy approaches of the EU exacerbated both state and popular sentiments. Statesmen feared, acting in accordance within their Westphalian fashion, the loss of state power to EU technocrats while EU populations increasingly felt alienated from the process. This alienation was not unfounded as some have argued, for the modern notion of sovereignty lies with the people. The EU neglected the much needed grass-roots connection it so desperately needs now.The EU as a supra-national organization—a super-state of sorts—is said to have a strategic culture that is, namely, post-modern, neo-liberal and multicultural.(10) Some analysts have even argued that the EU is the anti-thesis to everything embodied within the ‘strategic culture’ line of reasoning; that it [the EU] is so positively the complete opposite of the modern state that even classifying it within such a dichotomy would be mistaken and, perhaps more importantly, short-sighted—hence effectively marring any analytical departure henceforth. Regardless of this fact, its erratic relationship with its own more-traditional states—those that would be considered slightly more ‘modern’ than ‘post-modern’—let alone with Turkey, welcomes any insight receptive decision-making bodies. (11) But it is important to ask here: is it the differences between strategic cultures that prevent Turkey’s accession to the EU or, rather, the attitudes towards these differences that are more important?

If one is to assume strategic culture to be an important—if not the most important—limiting determinant in this context, then one must also know how to work around it. The premise of strategic culture rests mostly on historical and structural observations; a historical causality and linearity that allows for typological categorization. Take, for example, how the post-modern EU automatically assumes a departing point of x—here the ‘modern’—and relatively encloses this within the context of historical-reflexive paradigm sequence: to truly become ‘post-modern’, an invariably modern precursor must have been experienced or referred to as the ‘Other’. Running with this logic, then, strategic culture presupposes a progressive and logic based argumentative structure. Instead of viewing the post-modern as the dialectical opposite of the modern, one must accept it as a necessary ‘condition’, if not a historical antecedent. Turkish strategic culture, for example, need not ‘conflict’ with the EU’s strategic culture in argument at least—even if it does in the practical world. Rather, one must ask why this conflict seems inherent—differences should be reconciled and, as argued, differences are not differences as such, but rather ‘familiar dissimilarities’ that—for political or personal gain—are being exploited and misconstrued to the public sphere.

Then the issue becomes that of communication rather than the seemingly irreconcilable ‘strategic’ differences. The EU, somewhere along the line, disregarded the historical experiences and lived circumstances that paved the way for it to attain its norms, values and practical advantages it now enjoys. What the people of Europe and, in essence, the Turkish question does is posit that very reminder back to the EU: be the guide for transition to the post-modern, not a detached and discombobulated spirit wandering/haunting Brussels—choosing to hardly remember why sovereignty was entrusted to it in the first place. The lessons of historical circumstances cannot be expected to be inherently ‘known’ by those that have lived or witnessed different historical developments or experiences—internationally, nationally or even in terms of generations. To expect from them this requirement would be tantamount to hegemony and would certainly constitute a one-way monologue between the multiple political bodies. While it is true that Turks must confront their political and social issues and determine—for themselves above all—where they really belong, amenable attitudes could aid them go through the experiences by what others had to live to understand; for example, ideological world wars that leave entire cities destroyed to have the people realize the futility of the ideological quest for ‘utopia’. In return, Turks could offer insights into alternative modern approaches to attaining the ‘post-modern’ state. In effect, this exchange could allow the EU and its populations better recognize themselves as well; perhaps even breathing a fresh new air of existential enthusiasm to an otherwise overly cynical atmosphere.

A good and practicable departure point would be to jump-start or even re-conceptualize the outdated ‘spill-over’ theory. A more pluralistic EU, welcoming the different narratives it neglected, could essentially become truly cosmopolitan—instead of opting to shoulder the burden of failed homogenization. Meta-political approaches—dialogue on the state and content of the current EU language—could offer the academic distance needed to surmount the current obstinate impasse. In this regard, anything derived from meta-political approaches could offer an advisable approach and the needed blueprints for XXI century EU politics; where the ‘strategic’ realm has failed, the meta-political realm could help ameliorate or even transcend the modern/post-modern limitations of the social and political environments. As remarked earlier, the issue—particularly in the XXI century—is that of communication, attitudes and language.    


1. Merkel has repeatedly stated that she favors a ‘privileged partnership’ for Turkey: a compromise solution that would see Turkey formally outside of the EU, but benefitting from the economic and social privileges as if it were an EU member state. Turkish officials had repeatedly denounced this option and consider only a full EU membership or a formal break in relations as the only viable and honest alternative. A discussion on what this option means and entails, along with its challenges, can be found at: Dedeoglu, B. & Gursel, S. (n.d.) EU and Turkey: The Analysis of Priveledged Partnership or Membership. Galatsaray University and Bahcesehir University joint research: Istanbul.

2. Coskun, O. & Hudson, A. (2012). Merkel Reassures Turkey on EU Talks, Erdogan Raps Cyprus. Reuters Berlin. URL:  Retrieved: November 10 2012

3. Statesmen tend to be, by default, conservative figures that favor low-risk, high-dividend yielding scenarios. Instability and high-risk scenarios are often avoided in exchange for short-term clarity. Though changing political scenarios, if properly played, could theoretically result in rare opportunities of unprecedented gains, they irk statesmen with their capricious nature. This, among other reasons, is why they opt for them covertly—often only partially and with damage-control mechanisms. For a great analysis of state behavior and decision-making refer to: Allan, P. & Dupont C. (1999). International Relations Theory and Game Theory: Modeling Choices and Empirical Robustness. International Political Science Review: Sage Publications.  

4. Spill over theory as a component of Neo-functionalism—within the context of European integration—discussed in: Sandholtz, W. & Sweet, A.S. (1998). Neo-Functionalism and Supranational Governance. Oxford University Press: London.

5. A concise but thorough narrative of the past 50 years of European integration, refer to: Gilbert, M. (2012). European Integration: A Concise History. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc: Plymouth, United Kingdom.

6. The relationship between the EU and its population now constitutes a majorly cantankerous issue; the EU has increasingly lost its popular backing from among its member state constituents. For example, fewer EU populations turnout to vote for their unfamiliar EU parliamentarians: in 1979 well over 60% of a random member state’s population headed to the voting booths to select their EU representative. Now, this figure averages to below 45%: constituting roughly a 20% loss of turnout. Though while a possible explanation to this disinterest could originate from the fact that the founding European statesmen eschewed the idea of populism as a pillar and guiding principle of the European supra-body—as the Economist states that populism was seen as the historical tool of fascists and communists—this explanation does not suffice to account for the recent disenchantment European populations have with the EU. See: Grant, C. (2012). An Ever-Deeper Democratic Deficit. Vol. 403 Number 8786 of the Economist magazine: London.

7. The other narrative offered by some pro-EU federalists and ‘informed’ Euro skeptic British analysts centers around the Sarkozy-Merkel conservative alliance (along with others) and how this alliance did much to wear down the legitimacy of the EU. Nationalist sentiments, mixed with borderline xenophobic rhetoric originating from within this alliance, dispensed the ‘glue’ of European identity: trans-border, international solidarity. The EU was, for a long time, likened to a technocratic ‘socialist’ project that—like the USSR—that was/is seeking to create a pseudo-macro level identity with faux and misplaced Kantian idealism as its guiding principle. However, after Germany began to matter more than Brussels—mostly for power political reasons—Merkel advocated the strengthening of the EU under the ‘tutelage’ of Germany; a neo-imperial and Bismarckian take-over in the post-modern sense of the term. Some of these arguments mentioned in: Faiola, A. & Birnbaum, M. (2012). Germany Offers Vision of Federalism for the European Union. The Washington Post: Washington DC. URL:   

8. The traditional definition of strategic culture is, “…conventionally characterized as a set of beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, norms world views and patterns of habitual behaviour held by strategic decision-makers regarding the political objectives of war and the best way to achieve it”. See: Klein, Y. (1991). A Theory of Strategic Culture. Comparative Strategy, Vol. 10, No. 1. After the Cold War, however, international relations experts and strategic analysts have regarded strategic culture as that of anything beyond the limited ‘political’ culture demarcation. In this sense, strategic culture examines the vast strategic behaviours of states. Strategic culture behaviouralists have reinvigorated the Realist school of international relations; neo-realists often examine the structural shifts and turns of states with behaviouralist approaches.

9. To understand the demarcation between the ‘strategic’ and the ‘political’ realm, one must approach this classification with a traditional Realist perspective: the matters of strategic relations concern the most macro-level transactions between states while the political and lesser realms are concerned with the dealings within them. These realms are not exclusive of one another; for example, the political culture of one state could influence its behavior at the strategic level. Nonetheless, the typological demarcation is real and the strategic level is concerned with strategic developments vis-à-vis other political states/bodies.  See: Waltz, K. (1959). Man, the State and War. New York: Columbia University Press.

10. For a comprehensive assessment of the EU strategic culture, or lack thereof, see: Herd, G. (n.d.) EU-Turkey Clashing Political and Strategic Cultures as Stumbling Blocks on the Road to Accession. Geneva: Geneva Centre for Security Policy.

11. The Turkish strategic culture is said to be mostly modern, Realist theory governed and Hobbesian. In many regards the complete opposite of the EU’s ‘strategic culture’ or lack thereof.