During the past decade, the European Union has furthered its enlargement process with a view to integrating Eastern European countries and to strengthening the Union’s political and economic weight. In this context, the idea of an eventual entry by Turkey to the EU has found fertile ground and has emerged as a pivotal but controversial issue, able to affect elements as the European Identity and the role of the Union as a regional actor.
In 2005, the opportunity for European leaders to bolster the idea of Europe as a bridge between the West and the Arab world and to embrace a democratic and secular republic with a Muslim majority and an advancing economy have led to an opening with Turkey in order to start access negotiations.
However, in spite of the historic importance of a strategic decision like this and the fact that Ankara still seems capable of integration with the EU, there are several aspects that have to be remembered comparing advantages and disadvantages of a possible accession by Turkey into the Union.
If it is true that the entry of Ankara could really foster European soft power and give a « coup de grace » to the narrative of Samuel Huntington’s « clash of civilisations », at least in the Euro-Mediterranean arena, various other elements could suggest a more balanced and more « critical » look at this issue.
Considering the debate on Ankara’s democratic reforms and how the country protects human rights, especially those of its minority groups, which could actually clash with the debate on the « soul » of a Europe still struggling to find its identity, the possibility of Turkey’s accession continues to raise concern and now seems a long way off.
Some years ago it was the dramatic shift in the current distribution of world power of the new Millennium that fostered a standoff between Brussels and Ankara. Over the last fifteen years Turkey has shown a sharp growth and an astonishing political and economic evolution, which summoned the country to a new phase in its history. Moreover, the so-called « Arab Spring » and the upheavals in many Mediterranean, North-African and Arab countries marked the significant and growing geopolitical influence of Turkey as an autonomous regional player, which was looking for a stage worthy of its ambition.
Turkey’s leadership tried to develop a fine-tuned, effective and flexible geostrategic and diplomatic approach intended to avoid any possible problem with the country’s neighbours. In this way, Ankara aimed at exerting a strong influence on the Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean area, thanks to its historic nature as a Muslim country with secular and democratic institutions.
In the development of this geopolitical posture, the Ottoman country needed to be free to design its model and, above all, to present itself as a regional emerging actor, whereas a European image may have weakened Turkish diplomatic strength in the eyes of the Arab world. Europe, indeed, was plunging more and more in the financial crisis that made its first appearance in 2008. In this context, the European need of Turkish soft power and economic strength and Turkey’s gaining of more influential and independent role on the international arena appeared to be hardly linkable.
Today other elements affect the debate concerning Turkey’s eventual accession to the European Union.
On the external level, the progressive deterioration of the Middle Eastern context due to the crises in Syria and Iraq has negatively impacted on Ankara’s regional policy, hitherto based on the “no problems with neighbours” principle. Therefore, the role and influence of Turkey on the Middle East have significantly scaled down compared to a few years ago and, after three years of stalemate, the country has shown a renewed interest in the process towards its accession to the European Union.
The appointment of the former Minister for European Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu as Minister of Foreign Affairs and of the former permanent Representative to the EU Volkan Bozkir as Minister of European Affairs has been seen as a signal of Ankara’s renewed interest in reviving the negotiation process with Brussels. Ankara’s new government also reiterated that Turkey’s accession to the Union remains a primary objective and presented in September 2014 its new Strategy for the EU.
However, despite the governmental rhetoric no concrete steps have been taken forward.
Since the start of the negotiations in October 2005, Turkey only opened 14 out of the 35 chapters under the accession process, temporarily concluding just one of them. Furthermore, in 2006 the EU Council blocked the opening of 8 chapters, following Turkey’s refusal to apply to the Republic of Cyprus the additional Protocol of the Ankara Agreement, which envisaged the extension of the custom union with the Union to the new member states. Then, France blocked 5 chapters and two years later Cyprus blocked six more, concretizing a deadlock which appears to be solvable in the short term.
One of the major obstacles to the process of accession by Turkey into the European Union remains the diplomatic war of words between Ankara and Athens regarding the recognition of Cyprus, for which the Union has not yet found a solution. In particular, after the failure of the referendum on the Annan Plan to resolve the island dispute, only the southern Republic of Cyprus joined the EU. And since then, the country has not missed the opportunities to assert its right of veto on the decisions concerning Turkey within the EU Council.
Moreover, today, Turkey appears more distant from European political standards then it was ten years ago. In the last year and a half, internal developments in Turkey have led to a progressive erosion of the democratic process, which is not yet fully consolidated, and to increased political and social polarisation.
Regarding this issue, it is worth remembering that in its last report released in October on Ankara’s progresses, the European Commission raised several concerns with respect to Ankara’s developments in the area of the rule of law and fundamental rights and the erosion of the principle of division of powers due to interferences of the executive in judicial matters.
Finally, and to sum up, the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the EU does not seem as likely as it could have appeared just a few years ago.
In this context, the European Union could, as an alternative, create and bolster a privileged partnership with Ankara, strengthening the links offered by the Atlantic alliance and promoting closer relations, in the economic as well as the geo-strategic and diplomatic field.
In particular, a strengthened cooperation in the fight against terrorism and in foreign and security policy between Turkey and the Union could also lead to soften the divergences that emerged between Ankara and the west during last years.
Such links could prove more flexible and could enable a « variable geometry » that could lead to a more vital, stable and suitable landscape for the two actors.