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date: 10 April 2021

Turkey and the European Unionlocked

  • Birol A. YeşiladaBirol A. YeşiladaMark O. Hatfield School of Government, Portland State University


The partnership between the European Union (EU) and Turkey has been unlike any other accession process. Turkey has had a close relationship with Western Europe since it joined the National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952 and became an associate member of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963. During the Cold War, there was hardly any serious doubt about this country eventually becoming a member of the Western European Economic Community. However, developments since the end of the Cold War have raised considerable misgivings over Turkey’s membership in the EU, first among several political leaders of member states and their respective citizens, and lately among Turkish leaders and the general Turkish public. Debates over Turkey’s membership fall into two distinct categories. First, those who oppose Turkey’s membership in the EU point at this country’s economic problems, deterioration of democracy, and the Islamic culture of its society. These states either outright object to Turkey’s membership or favor changing the negotiation process to end with nothing more than a preferential partnership between the EU and Turkey. Second, supporters of Turkey’s membership emphasize this country’s economic and strategic importance for the EU, as well as the Union’s treaty obligations to complete the accession negotiation. Moreover, Turkey’s supporters argue that the EU cannot afford to cut off its ties to this country at a time when President Erdogan is looking for excuses to realign his country with anti-NATO countries.

When one looks at the potential for Turkey’s membership in the EU, accession seems further away, if not impossible. The challenges for Turkey include a roller-coaster performance along democratic (political) acquis, the economic cost of enlargement, the Europeanness of Turkey, and the acquis communautaire. Once a promising potential member, Turkey has become a policy nightmare for the EU. Although the Copenhagen criteria represent the primary framework for accession, regional, and systemic developments further complicate such decision-making. For the political acquis, Turkish democracy has deteriorated to such an extent that it no longer meets the minimum requirements for membership. On the economic front, Turkey remains one of the EU’s most important trade and investment partners. However, the Turkish economy is showing severe signs of overheating coupled with the falling value of the Turkish lira. Furthermore, the Turkish public is increasingly moving away from the Europeans in terms of social values that dominate the general population. Instead of the convergence of societal benefits, there is a growing gap between Turks and other Europeans. Furthermore, there is a growing sentiment among Turks that the EU leaders are not interested in having Turkey join the Union. Finally, Turkey and the EU need to find a permanent solution to such problems as the refugee crisis, EU–NATO partnership, Cyprus, and bilateral disputes between Greece and Turkey.

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