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New (old) challenges concerning the EU-Turkish relations

Nowadays we are assisting to a change of power in some crucial Turkish cities as it has never happened before, since Erdoğan, leader of the AKP, reached the power in 2003 general elections[1].

As read on the main international newspapers, the idea is that the Turkish president is losing his power, and with him, the conservative wing of the country, in favour of a more leftist and progressive part of the population[2]. As reported by the Guardian the 3th of April 2019, it seems that the change of  power in Istanbul and Ankara will sign a switch of trend in the next future. Moreover, it is  also true that the presidential election will be held only in 2023, so until this moment the trend can obviously vary. The change in local administration determines not always a significant change in national politics, but considering that AKP was winning since 1994 in the cities previously mentioned, this moment can be crucial. The importance of a possible reversal of the outcome in the forthcoming presidential elections could be essential in order to reconstruct a closer cooperation with the West, notably with the EU. Despite a long history of strong relations and ambitions to join  the EU, an anti-West attitude, shared by Erdoğan party, arose since the mid-2000 in Turkey. The aim of this article is to analyse the differentiation of the approach from both side, the European and the Turkish one, depending on the period, the geopolitical context and the domestic events that marked the country. 

Historical Framework

The relations between EU and Turkey are probably the most debated ground for the enlargement process or the neighbourhood policy (depending on how we consider this topic) for the Union, since its constitution. Since the beginning, the relations between EU and Turkey changed depending on the international balance of power. It is clear how all the global issues since the end of World War II, influenced the perception of this country that is basically the bridge which can or cannot connect the Western World to the Middle East as well as to Caucasian countries. At the time of the European Concert in 1815, the Ottoman Empire was part of the discussion, but after the disruption, France and United Kingdom were thinking of how to split the territories among themselves. The Turkish history, since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (1914), has always been oriented in order to pursue a Europeanization (or Westernization) of the country. For this reason, at the end of World War II we can see an inclusion of this country in some of the main international organizations, led by the US or at least under the west sphere of influence. Turkey is currently part of the NATO, the Organization for economic cooperation and development (OECD), the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE). The country managed to get as closer as possible  to the United States, after their affirmation as leader of the western, liberal and “free world”. Therefore, Turkey joined the US in the Atlantic Security System and in 1952 entered the NATO. [3]

Relations with EU after the Second World War

In order to develop our analysis on the change of the role and the ties between EU and Turkey, it is useful to have a timeline by which framing all the events.


As shown in Figure 1, the ties with the EU cover different fields. The first point of contact was in 1959, when Turkey was one of the first countries to achieve a closer cooperation with the new “European Economic Community”. In 1963 the official Association Agreement – better known under the name of Ankara Agreement – was signed. One of the crucial elements of this agreement was the possibility for Turkey to trade goods and agricultural products without restrictions. The Ankara agreement pushed for the Turkish government to foster the modernization of the country in order to reduce the disparities of standard lifestyle comparing to the one in the Community. Other important steps in the process of rapprochement happened in 1987 when, after some domestic difficulties for the Ankara’s government, Turkey formally applied to became an official Member of the Community. Moreover, some years later, in 1992, the nature of the Community changed radically with the Maastricht Treaty. For this reason, only in 1997 the Union declared Turkey an eligible country for full membership in the new European Union[5]. Meanwhile, the procedures for the Custom Union started in 1993 and took effect in 1996. In order to achieve the status of full member of the EU there are some essential criteria needed to be accomplished, commonly known as Copenhagen criteria, formalised in 2004. The criteria are declined as follows:

1)political criteria: stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;

2)economic criteria: a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces;

3)administrative and institutional capacity to effectively implement the acquis and ability to take on the obligations of membership.[6]

Considering how the path evolved, it is possible to guess that some of these acquis haven’t been achieved by all the Turkish governments until now. One of the crucial elements that has always played an important role in negotiations is the Cyprus issue[7]. In the meantime , other achievements in the frame of the EU-Turkish relation are reached, such as the visa liberalisation in 2013. However, it is not possible to overcome one of the main hot potato in these years: the migration flows. On 18 March 2016, the Union and  Turkey agreed on a Statement to shut down the irregular migration flows. The agreement foresees the possibility to send back the people who cannot receive asylum. It adds the possibility for every Syrian returned to Turkey from Greece, another one will be resettled in Europe.[8] The agreement aims to hit the business on human trafficking and smuggling. The President of the European Commission (EC) Jean-Claude Junker, emphasizes that the agreement respects the Union principles and complies with the Union law. According to the agreement, all new illegal migrants travelling from Turkey to  Greece will have to return to Turkey. According to a report of the EC[9], in 2018 illegal migrations remain at 97% lower than in the period before the Statement. The EU supported the Ankara government in managing the flows in 2017 with the first tranche of economic aid amounting around €3 billion. The EC and EU Member States are also providing support to the Greek authorities for the implementation of the statement. Despite all the positive outcomes in terms of percentage and reduction in the irregular flows, this statement is one of the most criticized action in the external policy of the EU. As reported by the British newspaper the Guardian,[10] a report of the Council of Europe listed several concerns on human right violations, from inadequate legal protection for people seeking to appeal against rejection of asylum, to keeping migrants in overcrowded and insanitary condition centers. The EU was also accused by Amnesty International of rejection asylum requests through a fast procedure, during 2015 considering  Turkey as a safe country to return.[11] According to some scholars[12], the fascination Turkey has always had for the EU started to decrease in the mid-2000, when the power from almost everywhere (government, presidency and the main cities) was in the hands of the AKP, Erdoğan’s party. From this period, it seems that the  Turkish government tried to dismantle all the Kemalist principles in the organization of the state, notably  the liberal and democratic instruments[13]. An interesting element is that the loss of charm on the European side is not only to be considered outside of the Union, but also inside. It should be emblematic the way the skepticisms towards the EU arose, more or less, in the same years inside and outside.

Towards the US

Another element to take into account is the attractiveness that the US have towards this country. There are several reasons why for the US, Turkey is so important: first, its  geographic and cultural position represents a bridge that connects several regions from the Balkans to the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Gulf countries. Historically (since the entrance in the NATO), Turkey has always seen the US and EU countries as strategic partners also in terms of security in the Middle East region. But what emerged, according to some scholars as Ian Lasser[14], is that if in theory Turkey and the  US can have the same interest in having peace and stability in the region, it is also true that in practice, the two countries have different views on several aspects in the area. The fields were notably they have cashes as: the Cyprus issue, the relation with Iran, the Syrian conflict, the issue of the Kurdish people and the YPG and the relations with Russia.[15] In the last years, the general positioning in Turkish public opinion is shifted to a more anti-Western and anti-US attitude. The turn is mainly due to the political guideline fixed by the President who is looking  in a much favorable way towards  the east.[16]

Towards Russia

In the relations with Moscow it is essential to consider different fields on which the two countries have same interests: speaking of economy, the energy and weapons markets are the main fields[17]. Moreover, there are grounds that cannot be calculated in economic terms, because they are much more linked with political and geopolitical aspects. The shared anti-Western attitude is the results of several events and it is the main reason for cooperation between Turkey and Russia[18]. Due to the evolution of the domestic policies – not only the foreign relations – of the two countries, it is possible to compare the two leaders. It seems that they are pursuing other routes, far from those drown by the western liberal democracies.


Considering the historical and geopolitical overview about the recent Turkish political development, it seems that the EU is not anymore at the top of the Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. The change in the approach is, as shown, due to the international and geopolitical evolution, but also it is the result of years of conservative policies and anti-Western propaganda. It seems that Turkey would not represent anymore the bridge that connect two continents, but it is the door that controls the cross. Anyway, the recent elections’ results shown a need for the population to change the path, at least in the domestic policy. Could it be considered as the engine that triggers the change in foreign policy too?

[1]Justice and Development Party, ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, 03/04/2019

[2] Turkish democracy is the winner in these momentous local electionsSinan Ülgen

[3] Eu–Turkey Relations: Steering In Stormy Seas, Emiliano Alessandri, Ian Lesser, Kadri Tastan, the German Marshall Fund of the US,  2018

[4]EPRS  European Parliamentary Research Service Author: Philippe Perchoc, October 2018

[5]EU and Turkey’s History, EU delegation in Turkey:

[6] European Neighbourhood Policy And Enlargement Negotiations:

[7] European Parliament brings parties to Cyprus conflict together, The Brussels Time, 21 November 2018:

[8] EU-Turkey migrant deal ‘not working properly’: Germany’s Merkel, Reuters  11/01/2019:

[9] European Commission, EU-TURKEY STATEMENT Two years on , April 2018:

[10]Council of Europe condemns EU’s refugee deal with Turkey, The Guardian, Jennifer Rankin, 20 April 2016:

[11]The Refugee Crisis and the EU’s Externalisation of Integrated Border Management to Libya and Turkey, College of Europe, Melanie Bonnici Bennett:

[12] Emiliano Alessandri, Ian Lesser, Kadri Tastan

[13]Eu–Turkey Relations: Steering In Stormy Seas, Emiliano Alessandri, Ian Lesser, Kadri Tastan, the German Marshall Fund of the US, 2018:

[14] Dr. Ian Lesser is vice president for Foreign Policy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

[15] Commentary, The US and Turkey: A High Maintenance Relationship, ISPI, Ian Lesser, 30 marzo 2019:

[16] Ibidem

[17]Happy Together? The Moscow-Ankara Axis, Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, 30 marzo 2019, ISPI

[18] Ibidem

Léon De Tombeur

Diplômé en Histoire à la Sorbonne et en Relations Internationales à Lyon III, je me suis notamment intéressé à la politique internationale de l’Union européenne. Animé par un désir de contribuer à l’Europe afin de la rendre plus sociale et respectueuse de l’environnement, je me suis rendu à Bruxelles afin de travailler de concert avec les institutions européennes. Ma spécialisation tend davantage vers le domaine de la défense et de la sécurité, j’ai réalisé mon mémoire de fin d’études sur le futur de la défense anti-missile du continent européen. C’est pourquoi j’ai choisi le portefeuille de la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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