“The EU Accession process is less of a negotiation than an imposition,” we were told, meeting with Michael Miller, the Head of Political Affairs for the EU Delegation to Turkey in Ankara.
And indeed, the accession process is intrusive, as the European Commission issues thorough recommendations about what must be done for Turkey to bring itself in line with the European Union acquis. As a result, the EU Accession process has been a driving force behind reform in Turkey.
The EU Accession process has also been a long time coming. The EEC and Turkey first entered into an Association Agreement in 1964, aimed at eventually securing Turkey’s full membership in the EEC. However, the next several decades were rife with political violence and instability, with military coups in 1970 and 1981. In 1987, Turkey applied for full EEC membership; it was rejected as the European Commission stressed the existing gaps between Turkey and the EEC. Turkey and the EU instead formed a Customs Union in 1995. Finally, the European Council finally entered Turkey into its list of candidate countries at Helsinki in 1999, and accession negotiations opened in October 2005.
There are some obvious benefits of Turkey’s accession for both sides. The EU has an interest to stabilize Turkey politically, and the location of Turkey as a key energy transit route would make its EU membership extremely strategic. For Turkey, the EU is its biggest trading partner, accounting for 40% of its foreign trade. The EU is by far the biggest investor in Turkey, and it would make sense to solidify this economic partnership through greater integration.
However, the European Union has evolved significantly from its beginnings as an economic union in the EEC. In this sense, Turkey is chasing a moving goalpost or target when it comes to EU accession. The EU has increasingly been seen to embody a set of European values with regards to democracy and human rights.
While these reforms can be made, there remains hesitancy whether it is worth it. After initial progress in the early 2000s, the accession of Cyprus to the EU without resolving the border dispute spurred Turkish resentment, resulting in a hiatus in accession talks between 2004 to 2012. In contrast, many chapters are closed in the Turkish accession talks until a resolution in Cyprus. Comments by French President Sarkozy that “Turkey… has no place inside the European Union” suggest that even if Turkey could meet the acquis, it might still be unable to receive the unanimous vote to ultimately become a member.
There is also the question about whether Turkey actually needs the EU. The country managed to breeze through the world financial crisis of 2008-2009 relatively unscathed, in part due to the banking sector reforms instituted as part of its IMF loan package at the beginning of the decade. It has a large and growing domestic market, as over 50% of its population is under the age of 30. Also, there tends to be talk in Turkey about its options in the East, looking to Russia or countries in the Middle East as possible economic and political partners.
At the same time, Mr. Miller told us, “Turkey would do well to look at the costs of non-membership as well,” believing that Turkey does not have the political ability to institute reforms without external pressure. The lack of progress after 2004 has demonstrated this shortcoming, although Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Democratization Package may signal a renewed dedication.
“We need to get the EU accession process back to the leverage it had in 2002 to 2004,” Mr. Miller said.