MESOP Turkey Analysis: Ankara Will Not Be Joining the European Union

Sotirios Zartaloudis of the University of Birmingham writes for the Birmingham Brief:

After Turkey and the European Union agreed a deal in response to the unprecedented migrant/refugee crisis that has caused havoc in Greece and a number of other EU countries, there has been some discussion on the possibility of Turkey joining the EU. Despite the rising interest, Turkey will not enter the EU soon. Indeed, its bid to become a member state may never materialize, given the considerable obstacles from the EU and from Turkey itself.

Turkey has stalled most of the negotiations around specific policy areas (or chapters of theacquis communautairetarget=”_blank”) for some time. Re-opening them will require considerable effort, which is something that Turkey is not willing to do at present. Instead, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is increasingly behaving like Vladimir Putin, by limiting personal freedoms and human rights, imposing curfews on Kurdish areas and, openly waging a war — including attacks on civilians — against Kurdish Turks.

Erdoğan is actively seeking to restrict freedom of expression, the press, and the secular tradition of Turkey. In the latest episode of a direct attack on the press, security forces stormed the newspaper Zaman, owned by Erdoğan’s opponents the Gulenists, after a court order put the publication under trustees. The next morning, the paper had a very pro-Erdoğan front page.

Entering into the European Union, Erdoğan would not be able to play Sultan. Turkey would become a western state where religion could not encroach upon public life and human rights would have to be respected in line with theEuropean Convention. Membership to the EU would mean the reversal of Erdogan’s agenda of controlling Turkey and turning it eastwards.

Equally, the EU is reluctant to provide full membership to Ankara. Turkey would be one of the largest countries in terms of population, giving it increased voting rights in all EU institutions, including Parliament and the Council. These rights would make Turkey one of the strongest EU members in terms of political power and influence.

Secondly, Turkey’s low income (at present it is poorer than Romania, the bloc’s poorest state), vast inequalities, and a predominantly agrarian economy means Ankara will require some of the greatest transfer of funds in EU history. This would include support from the Common Agricultural Policy, Regional/Cohesion policy, and the European Social Fund.

If the EU were to accept Turkey’s membership application, it would have to devote most of its budget to Turkey, making it one of the strongest member states in the bloc. It is therefore no surprise that the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Chancellor George Osborne have openly rejected the prospect.

At the same time, Turkey’s hostile relationship with Cyprus prevents a serious scenario of full membership. While the Turkey-Cyprus relationship is secondary to other issues, it offers the rationale for the opposition of Germany, France, and the UK.

Another obstacle for Turkey is the country’s political, social and religious orientation. As a predominantly Muslim country, which is experiencing a turn against secular Kemalism, Turkey will be at odds with a predominantly Christian and secular EU.

Until Erdoğan’s election in 2003, Turkey was a staunchly secular and pro-Western country. But during his time in office as Prime Minister and now as President, Erdoğan has gradually turned Turkey into an ever-growing Islamic-Democratic state. Islam is present in all aspects of society and public policy, influencing education, family law, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. Erdoğan’s agenda seems at odds with European values of freedom of press, human rights, and secularism, while the autonomous nature of many branches of government, such as the bureaucracy, the military, and judiciary, makes a challenge near-impossible.

Despite his repression, Erdoğan remains one of the most popular politicians in Turkey, and it seems that the majority of Turks support him as a charismatic leader of a wider pro-Islamic movement. Moreover, the ambitions of Erdoğan and the broader elite of the ruling AKP to make Turkey a regional superpower, coupled with increasing anti-western and anti-US sentiments among Turks, will create more problems for EU countries. These will be accentuated by the various conflicts playing out along Turkish borders with Syria, Iraq, and the wider Middle-East.

Britain’s George Osborne is right to dismiss the possibility of Turkey’s EU membership in the near-future. This is a question of “if” instead of a question of “when”.