Moving Goalposts: Democratisation & EU Membership for Turkey

Dr. Paul J. Kubicek, Director of Center for International Studies at Oakland University –  November 4, 2013

 Introduction : Over a decade ago, when the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi [Justice and Development Party]) came to power in Turkey, hopes were high in many quarters that this was the dawn of a “new” Turkey.[1] While the AKP had Islamist roots and was distrusted by many in the secular establishment, its leaders boasted that AKP stood for  “conservative democracy,” including a commitment to universal values of freedom.[2]  In the early 2000s, the AKP was also arguably the most pro-European Union (EU) of all Turkish political parties, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proclaiming that Turkey would continue with reforms to meet EU criteria and aimed to make Europe’s values “Ankara’s values.”[3]

Much has happened in the past decade, but writing in 2013 it is more difficult to be sanguine about both Turkish democracy and, especially, the country’s EU bid. This is not to say that Turkey has not made considerable progress. It has, and in some ways the country has come further than was imaginable in the 1990s prior to the rise of the AKP and imposition of EU conditionality. However, new challenges and problems have emerged, making the goals of consolidating a liberal democracy and joining the EU as elusive as ever. This brief commentary will suggest that has far as Turkey has come, the “goalposts” for both democracy and the EU have moved, so that, relative to the objectives of those supporting democratic freedoms and Europeanization, progress has been rather modest. Put somewhat differently, Turkish EU membership was (in 2002) and is (today) a long-term and uncertain prospect and, particularly in the past couple of years, Turkey has taken steps back on the path toward democracy.

Positive Developments under the AKP

It would unfair, however, to portray developments under the AKP in a wholly negative light. In the words of İhsan Dağı, the AKP embraced the language of democracy and human rights as “discursive shield,” and mobilized popular support and worked with various groups in Turkish society to bolster its democratic legitimacy.[4] This was not, however, merely rhetoric. Particularly during its first term (2002-2007), the AKP accelerated reforms began under the previous government, passing constitutional reforms and EU harmonization packages that covered issues such as freedom of expression and assembly, minority (e.g. Kurdish) rights, and the prerogatives of the military. Turkish civil society became more active. The AKP government did face significant opposition, but the party—and Turkey itself—avoided a major crisis in 2008 when the Constitutional Court refused to ban it, as had been done with some of its Islamic-oriented predecessors. Constitutional reforms as well as the Ergenekon and Balyoz court cases have weakened the power of the “deep state” and removed the threat of a military coup. The AKP was re-elected in 2007 and 2011, gaining more votes each time and thereby re-enforcing its democratic credentials. Among the party’s objectives after winning the 2011 was adoption of an entirely new constitution, one that it promised would create an “advanced democracy.”

As for relations with the EU, the early 2000s were the “golden age” of Turkish-EU relations, as the EU employed conditionality—holding out the prospect of eventual membership—to encourage domestic political reform. For its part, the AKP committed itself to adopting reforms in order to open accession talks. According to Ziya Öniş, if previously one witnessed a “vicious circle of delayed reforms and slow progress toward full membership”, EU pressure helped foster a “virtuous circle” conducive to wide-ranging reform. These reforms were, in his view, “inconceivable in the absence of powerful incentives and pressures from the EU.”[5] Guenther Verheugen, then the EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement, praised the AKP government, asserting that “the passage of reforms through [the Turkish] parliament shows the strong determination of the Turkish government to get in shape for EU membership.”[6] By 2005, Turkey had made sufficient progress to allow accession talks to begin. Writing at that time, İhsan Dağı opined that the AKP had “played a historically important role in consolidating democracy in Turkey and in integrating Turkey into the EU.”[7]

The Loss of Reform Momentum

In some respects, 2005 can be considered an apogee both for Turkish-EU relations and domestic political reform. Since then, progress on both fronts has been meager.[8] With respect to the EU, the inability to solve the division of Cyprus, as well as the emergence of governments in Germany and France that were against Turkey’s EU bid resulted in the suspension of talks on most accession chapters. Public opinion in many European countries is decidedly against Turkey’s membership bid, and internal EU problems have also dampened enthusiasm for expansion. As for Turkey, the perception that Europe is treating Turkey unfairly and wants the EU to remain a “Christian club” has resulted in less public support for the country’s EU bid. At the same time, the country’s growing economy and ambitions in the Middle East have made the EU a less central component of Turkish foreign policy. The EU was a marginal issue in 2011 elections. Adoption of a “Positive Agenda” between the EU and Turkey in 2012 has yet to eliminate the EU’s visa regime, which is viewed as humiliating by Turks. While it is true that no one wants to “pull the plug” on possible Turkish membership, this can hardly be construed as grounds for optimism.[9] Each side expects little from the other. The positive energy that characterized relations a decade ago is long gone. This was exemplified in September 2013 by Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, Egemen Bağış, who asserted that because of opposition with Europe, Turkey will never join the EU.[10]

At the same time, not coincidentally, Turkey’s domestic reform impetus has slowed, and, by some measures, the country seems to be moving backwards. One of main problems has been frequent invocation of anti-terrorism laws to clampdown on dissent. The results, which are rather well known, include imprisonment of journalists, academics, and, in particular, Kurdish activists. According to the 2013 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 154th out of 179 countries in the survey, lower than Russia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, and Zimbabwe. This is a significant change from its 2005 ranking, when it was 98th out of 167 countries. [11]  The Ergenekon trials against alleged coup plotters in the military and state bureaucracy have also been criticized, with some calling them “showtrials” because of questionable use of evidence and the impression that the trials are used to squash any form of dissent. In short, they cast “a shadow of doubt over the AKP’s intentions to expand democracy.”[12] Freedom House, in its 2013 report, downgraded Turkey on its civil liberties score, primarily out of concern about freedom of expression and rule of law, so that it now ranks the same as it did in 2003.[13] Womens’ rights, a major issue of social and political liberalization, remain problematic. For example, in the 2012 Global Gender Gap Index prepared by the World Economic Forum, Turkey ranks 124 out of 135 countries, lower than Algeria, Jordan, and Cameroon, and its raw score shows little progress since 2005.[14]   Lastly, the EU’s own progress reports have become increasingly critical of Turkey, on all the issues cited above as well as numerous others: rules on political parties, promotion of minority languages, trade union rights, allegations of torture, corruption, discrimination against homosexuals, and bans on Internet sites. Fırat Cengiz and Lars Hoffmann coded EU Progress Reports throughout the 2000s and argue that since 2005 the norm has been for the EU to cite “limited progress” with respect to democratic reforms,  whereas from 2001-2004 the EU often acknowledged “some” or even “good” progress.[15] The EU’s report on enlargement strategy in 2011 observed that despite “substantial” overall progress in the past decade, the EU and Turkey needed to “work to launch a new virtuous circle” with a “fresh and positive agenda.”[16]

The Turkish government, for its part, however, has been less and less receptive to outside criticism. For example, Prime Minister Erdoğan, who had earlier suggested he was fully committed to advancing “European values,”  responded to a European Parliament report on arrested journalists by stating, “Their duty is to prepare the report, and ours is to go our own way.”[17]  All of these reports and concerns, of course, pre-date the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which were on the one hand a manifestation of a more confident Turkish civil society but on the other an event that was met by a harsh crackdown by authorities, some of whom, in rhetoric reminiscent of Vladimir Putin, blamed the events on the foreign media and the Jewish diaspora. As for the new constitution, this project, for the time being, seems stymied because of profound distrust among Turkish political parties.

Assessing the AKP Years

As this discussion suggests, one cannot make a black/white judgment about Turkey under the AKP. There has been discernible progress. However, it is still of a “step forward, step back” variety, making it uncertain just how secure any of the reforms are. Part of the problem about drawing conclusions, however, is that the criteria of what is enough to be “democratic” or worthy of EU membership is uncertain and, I would contend, has changed over the years.

Consider, for example, the question of democracy. Turkey has free and fair elections. Voters choose among multiple parties. Based upon voting results, the government reflects the will of the people. There are lively print and electronic media. There is greater public space for religion. Civil society is more engaged in a variety of issues than before the AKP came to power. Kurdish identity is now recognized, there is an important Kurdish presence in parliament, and since the 2011 elections the AKP seems more committed than any previous government in finding a political solution to the long and bloody Kurdish conflict. The judiciary is now more accountable to elected branches of government. One prominent historical threat to Turkish democracy—the military—has been neutralized. Electoral democracy is secure.

However, both for many in Turkey and for outside observers, electoral democracy is not enough. Both the European norm and the expectation created in the early 2000s was that Turkey should move toward a liberal democracy, one that would prioritize individual rights and diminish the power of the state. Turkish democracy, however, can hardly be described as liberal. Journalists or activists who cross the government risk their jobs, if not arrest. Newspapers critical of the government may become special targets of the tax police. Self-censorship is becoming more and more commonplace. Protests have been shut down with force. The judicial process has become overly politicized. The political environment is exceptionally polarized, and the government, armed with its parliamentary majority, has shown little interest in engaging with its political rivals or those in civil society that have competing agendas.

I would contend that the problem is less the AKP’s alleged embrace of political Islam—although there are many in Turkey who fear the AKP’s intentions on this front—than unchecked power by what is becoming, like the PRI in Mexico or Unity in Russia, a hegemonic political power that de-legitimizes the opposition.   Indeed, to the extent that the AKP remains popular and views itself as the only and true repository of democracy and Turkish nationalism,[18] it is able to justify its exclusionary policies. To date, it has—to its credit—shown more flexibility on the Kurdish issue[19]—but, as Ziya Öniş notes, the “new Turkey” of the AKP has given little leeway for secularists or religious minorities such as Alevis to express their identity and advance their agendas. He concludes that neither the “old, Kemalist” Turkey nor Turkey under the AKP “represent genuine examples of political pluralism with mutual respect for diversity and genuine co-existence within the same polity by contrasting elements of Turkish society.”[20]

This issue —and the concerns about freedoms of expression and association— were made more manifest during the Gezi protests, which Amnesty International, in a scathing report, labeled a “brutal denial” of the right to peacefully assemble.[21] The government was roundly condemned for police brutality, which resulted in five deaths, and thousands of injuries. Thousands more were detained. Police attacked makeshift medical facilities that were treating the injured protesters. The government levied fines against television stations that aired critical views of the protests, and journalists who covered the events have also been fired or forced to resign. The response of many government officials—labeling the protesters as “hooligans” and calling social media a public menace—was hardly an example of the liberal values that Erdoğan said he sought to embrace.

However, this situation may suit the government just fine. The net effect is that in many ways the AKP has adopted the same statist and nationalist line as its erstwhile opponents. No longer the outsider party, it “occupies all social and political space,” capable of “perpetuating its political power and legitimacy.”[22] Indeed, insofar as the AKP controls the state machinery, has demonstrated a willingness and ability to cow dissent, and presides over an economy that continues to grow (and thus can provide resources for patronage), it is hard to envision a serious challenger at the ballot box to its continued rule.

Put somewhat differently, Erdoğan may have been right in claiming that he spoke for the Turkish majority in cracking down on Gezi, but this is a very majoritarian and, I would suggest, narrow and dangerous view of democracy. The government should not be able to do whatever it wants, and it should not instinctually de-legitimize opposing viewpoints. These are, however, often its modus vivendi. The undisguised effort to change the constitution to give more power to the presidency—which Erdoğan is confident of winning—and concomitant efforts to limit the ability of the constitutional commission to public comment or scrutiny is but one area of concern. The net result, according to one assessment, is that Turkey lacks a genuine constitutional process so that “a meaningful debate on the country’s long-standing problems with the potential of achieving consensus seems highly unrealistic.”[23] While a grand bargain may yet be struck to draft a new constitution, given the actions of the AKP in the past two-three years, there is good reason to doubt that this document, particularly if it centralizes executive authority, will significantly further the cause of political liberalization.

As for the EU, there has always been concern its true desire to add Turkey[24] and unclear or shifting goalposts for eventual membership, e.g. what precisely Turkey must do to join, will it be held to the same criteria as other new member-states, will “permanent safeguard clauses” leave Turks with a second-class status, will Turkey be offered a “special relationship” in lieu of full membership. Beken Saatçioğlu has suggested that even when the EU opened accession talks, it was clear several member states questioned both the material costs of Turkish membership and Turkey’s European identity.[25] In this regard, the opening of  accession talks merely signaled that Turkey met the basic requirements to begin the process, but it would be, as the EU itself emphasized, an open-ended process, in which, unlike in the case of Central and Eastern Europe, there was no guarantee of membership even if Turkey met the EU’s criteria.  My own anecdotal impression that EU Progress Reports add more and more to Turkey’s “to-do” list each year and that the EU seems to want to micromanage Turkish politics and society, drawing attention to issues of “low politics” such as civil service reform, legal aid for the poor, child care, and state auditing procedures. At minimum, two things are clear. First, joining the EU is not going to be as simple as one might have thought. Second, despite the numerous reforms made since 2000, it is hard to ascertain how much further—it terms of both time and legislative and constitutional action—Turkey has to go. Given the long list of items with which the EU has tasked Turkey (as well as the EU’s own internal problems), it remains doubtful Turkey is closer to EU membership in 2013 than it was, say, in 2005.

What is clear, however, is that the EU is having less and less influence on Turkey while Turkey itself is less and less focused on the EU. For example, Turkey froze its relations with the EU in the second half of 2012 during the Cypriot EU Presidency, and in 2013 Erdoğan floated the idea of Turkey joining with Russia, China, and the non-democratic Central Asian states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. “Europeanization”—the adoption of European standards and practices in various policy arenas—may occur in some fields, but it has taken on the form of “we will do what we want when we want to.”[26] The crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters is also sure to have costs vis-à-vis Europe, making Turkey look violent and unstable and calling into question the government’s commitment to liberal democratic principles. Whether and how the Turkish government can undo this damage and put both domestic political reform and accession talks back on track will be significant challenges.

Post Script 2013: Is the Democratization Package a Cause for New Hope?

At the end of September 2013, the AKP announced its long-awaited democratization package, perhaps the most significant development in terms of political reform since the late 2000s. The document made several proposals, touching on the electoral system, rights for Kurdish-language medium instruction in private schools, restoring Kurdish names to villages and provinces, greater freedom to wear the headscarf for public employees, laws to protect personal data, elimination of the required pledge of Turkishness in the schools, and some measures to enhance freedom of assembly. However, the measures did not address the Alevi question, establish Kurdish education in state schools or the anti-terror laws,  and they did not come with a pledge to release the thousands detained under anti-terror laws. As a consequence, many were disappointed with the package, and some, particularly in the political opposition, expressed doubts about the government’s sincerity.[27]

One can argue, of course, that these measures, incomplete though they may be, are nonetheless a good start and better than nothing. Furthermore, the government has pledged that more proposals, including a package on the Alevi issue, will be forthcoming. Given the AKP’s majority in parliament, it seems likely that much of the package will be passed, perhaps quite quickly. Moreover, on questions such as education in Kurdish, the Rubicon, so to speak, has been crossed. In other words, it is difficult to imagine Turkey moving backwards on such issues, which, of course, were inconceivable even a decade ago. Thus, writing in 2013, one can be, perhaps, guardedly optimistic with respect to reforms in Turkey, although, of course, memories of Gezi are still very fresh.

Can this jumpstart Turkish-EU relations? While the democratization package was well-received in Brussels and there are signs that the EU may open negotiations on regional policy with Turkey, the enthusiasm for initiatives from Erdoğan, due in large part to Gezi, is muted both in Turkey and in Europe, and, more importantly, the past link between political reform in Turkey and its EU bid is broken. Substantial progress on unfreezing accession chapters, for example, hinges more on the Cyprus question than political liberalization in Turkey. Removal of visas for Turks is more a technical question, conditioned by Turkish immigration and asylum policy. In other words, the EU can perhaps direct encouraging words at Turkey, but whether this translates into something tangible is somewhat doubtful.

Dr. Paul J. Kubicek, Director of Center for International Studies at Oakland University, Member of the Advisory Board of Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey)

Please cite this publication as follows:

Kubicek, Paul J.  (November, 2013), “Moving Goalposts: Democratisation and EU Membership for Turkey”,  Vol. II, Issue 9, pp.1-8, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


[1]  See for example M. Hakan Yavuz, ed. The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2006).

[2]  For example see Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “Conservative Democracy and the Globalization of Freedom,”in : M. Hakan Yavuz, ed. The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 2006: 333-340.

[3] R. T. Erdoğan, ‘Why the EU Needs Turkey’, Speech at Oxford University, 28 May 2004, available at, accessed 8 January 2013.

[4] İhsan Dağı, “The Justice and Development Party: Identity, Politics, and Human Rights Discourse in the Search for Security and Legitimacy,” in M. Hakan Yavuz, ed. The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 2006: 89.

[5] Ziya Öniş, “Turkey-EU Relations: Beyond the Current Stalemate,” Insight Turkey 10(4), 2008: 39.

[6] The Turkey Update. ‘Reforming for Europe’. 4 August 2003,

[7]  Dağı, in: M. Hakan Yavuz, ed. The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Parti (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press), 2006: 104.

[8]  A review of much of this period can be found in Paul Kubicek, “Political Conditionality and the EU’s Cultivation of Democracy in Turkey,” Democratization, 18:4, August 2011: 910-931.

[9] For an attempt at a more optimistic assessment, see  Joost Lagendijk, “Turkey and the European Union: 2014 and Beyond,” Insight Turkey 15(2), Spring 2013: 48-49.


[11] Reporters Without Borders, “Press Freedom Index 2013,” available at,1054.html, accessed 7 September 2013.

[12] A. Çınar, ‘The Justice and Development Party: Turkey’s Experience with Islam, Democracy, Liberalism, and Secularism’, International Review of Middle East Studies 43(3), 2011: 540.

[13] Freedom in the World 2013 Country Report, at

[14] Global Gender Gap Index 2012, available at

[15] Fırat Cengiz and Alrs Hoffmann, “Rethinking Conditionality: Turkey’s EU Accession and the Kurdish Question,” Journal of Common Market Studies 51(3) 2013: 416-432.

[16] European Commission, “Enlargement Strategy and Main Challenges, 2011-2012,” COM (2011) 666 final, 12 October 2011: 18-19.

[17] Sabah, “Erdoğan Criticizes EP Report on Press Freedom”, 11 March 2011, available at, accessed 8 January 2013.

[18] Menderes Çınar, “The Electoral Success of the AKP: Cause for Hope and Despair,”  Insight Turkey 13(4) 2011:  107-127.

[19]  One might suggest that it has done so primarily to win support from Kurdish MPs for the AKP’s constitutional project. Indeed, prior to 2011 elections, there was little discernible “Kurdish” agenda from the AKP.

[20] Ziya Öniş, “Sharing Power: Turkey’s Democratization Challenge in the Age of AKP Hegemony,” Insight Turkey 15(2), 2013: 108.


[22] İhsan Dağı, “Emergence of the ‘new AK Party’,” Today’s Zaman, 22 July 2012.

[23] Fırat Cengiz, “Epilogue: The future of democratic reform in Turkey: Constitutional ‘moment’ or constitutional process?”, in Cengiz and Lars Hoffmann, eds. Turkey and the European Union: Facing New Challenges and Opportunities (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 218.

[24] This was encapsulated in 2001 by The Economist’s caricature of Brussels’s view of possible Turkish membership, “Good grief, do we have to?” The Economist, ‘The Door Creaks Open,’ 17 November 2001: 47.

[25] Beken Saatçioğlu, “The EU’s ‘Rhetorical Entrapment’ in Enlargement Reconsidered: Why Hasn’t It Worked For Turkey?” Insight Turkey 14(3) 2012: 159-176.

[26] Amanda Paul, “Turkey’s EU Journey: What Next?” Insight Turkey 14(3) 2012: 30.

[27] For example, see and