January 26, 2010

Summary: Since 1999, Turkey has been a candidate for membership in the European Union. Early on, the process of accession united divergent political and social camps and triggered a virtual cycle of change. For the past few years, however, both the pace of reforms to meet the EU’s political criteria and the enthusiasm for membership have declined. To create momentum in the EU process, the government of Turkey needs to mobilize a wider support base among the Turkish public. This will also help equip Turkey’s friends in the European Union with stronger arguments on behalf of Turkey’s Europeanization. Ultimately, leadership in the European Union will also be decisive.

Turkey and the EU: Looking Back on 2009
by Nigar Göksel*

ISTANBUL — Turkey has been a candidate for membership in the European Union for more than a decade— since December 1999. Until 2005, the process of accession united otherwise divergent political and social camps and triggered a virtual cycle of change. For the past few years, however, both the pace of reforms to meet the EU’s political criteria and the enthusiasm for membership have declined. While mainstream Turkish politicians typically attribute this loss of momentum to the prejudice and double standards of politicians from EU member states, this is at best an incomplete assessment. Domestic polarization and the low profile allocated for the European Union on the agenda of Ankara are also to blame. The straightjacket of being “either friend or foe”2 of the government prevents divergent groups from uniting around important causes such as the EU integration process. The government and its friends should pick their fights—both inside Turkey and abroad—more selectively in order to build the wide base of support that will be needed to pursue the difficult but necessary political reforms ahead.

For the last six months of 2009, Sweden—a country supportive of not only EU enlargement in general but also Turkey’s eventual membership—held the rotating presidency. This month, Spain, another member state that backs Turkey’s aspirations, took over the presidency. By mobilizing around the goal of Europeanization, Ankara can take advantage of the opportunity of having friends in the European Union to further its case. The technical track The process of accession to the European Union requires the candidate country’s adoption and implementation of EU law—called the acquis communautaire—which is grouped into 35 chapters. The opening of each chapter for negotiation must be approved unanimously by the European Council. Of the 35 chapters, 12 have been opened—meaning Turkey is harmonizing its laws to EU standards, with only one of them declared complete in terms of Turkey’s compliance. Another 12 chapters have been blocked to Turkey, of which eight were suspended by the European Council in 2006 because Turkey refused to open its ports and airports to ships and planes from Cyprus,3 and five

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Nigar Goksel is a senior analyst at the European Stability Initiative and editor-in-chief of Turkish Policy Quarterly. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF or those of the European Stability Initiative. 2 This phrase is borrowed from a recent event in Lisbon of the Local Government and Public Service Initiative of the OSI network. 3 In July 2005, Turkey signed the “Additional Protocol” that extends the Association Agreement between Turkey and the European Union to also include Cyprus. However, Turkey issued a declaration expressing that this signature does not mean Turkey recognizes the Republic of Cyprus. Turkey has not ratified the Protocol in parliament to date. Besides suspending negotiations of eight chapters, the EU decided no chapter would be closed until Turkey applied the Additional Protocol to Cyprus.


were blocked by France in 2007, in line with President Sarkozy’s election promise of keeping Turkey out of the EU.4 (One chapter is blocked by both the European Council and France, bringing the total to 12.) These challenges to Turkey’s EU accession process, perceived as unfair, have fuelled bitterness. Resolution of the Cyprus problem is critical to remedy the Turkish perception of European double standards and to lift technical obstacles to Turkey’s accession process. The admission of the Cyprus Republic into the EU as a divided island in May 2004, despite the fact that the Greek Cypriot community had voted against unification, has effectively made Turkey’s EU membership process hostage to the Greek Cypriots. The Cyprus Republic is able to use its veto in the EU to obstruct Turkey’s negotiations and to block EU direct trade and financial assistance to the Turkish Cypriot community. Talks between the leaders of the two communities of the island are ongoing. Due to the time constraint imposed by the upcoming presidential elections in northern Cyprus scheduled for April 2010, it is particularly important that these talks yield results by spring. Ultimately, the steady yet slow pace of accession negotiations is likely to continue at a relatively low profile for the time being. In January 2009, with the appointment of Egemen Bağış, Turkey finally established a full-time EU chief negotiator. And since late 2009, an experienced diplomat and former ambassador to Brussels, Volkan Bozkır, has headed the European Union Secretariat General (EUSG) which coordinates the harmonization with EU obligations among Turkish public institutions. For the process to be sturdy though, it is important that political energy is also spent on keeping the society positively geared towards eventual membership. Shared values and affinity between Turkey and Europe There are two worrisome strands in the Turkish mainstream view about the European Union. One is the perception that whether it satisfies the criteria or not, Turkey does not have a credible prospect of membership. The other is that the European Union is incapable of pursuing a unified vision on strategic affairs, and thus Turkey need not bother joining.

Regarding prospects of eventual EU membership, it is understandable why many Turks would see the glass half empty. Austria, the country where Turkey’s membership is least popular, will have a decisive referendum on Turkish membership, assuming Turkey makes it to the finish line. Also, in the run-up to the elections for the European Parliament in June 2009, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, reiterated their opposition to Turkey’s full membership to the European Union. According to Transatlantic Trends 2009, a survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Turks who felt membership was not possible was 65 percent, and those who thought Turkey’s EU membership would be a good thing dropped steadily from 73 percent in 2004 to 40 percent in 2007, before a rise to 48 percent in 2009.5 And in the EU countries surveyed in 2009, only 19 percent expressed that Turkey’s membership would be favorable.6 According to the same survey, only 34 percent of Turks felt they shared common values with the West, and only 26 percent felt it was desirable for Brussels to exert strong leadership in international matters. If Turkey is serious about membership, the government needs to lead the public in line with its own arguments to EU counterparts about Turkey’s potential to fit into and strengthen the EU. Turkish bureaucrats and parliamentarians often return from trips to Middle Eastern countries or Russia with warm words about their counterparts, feeling “appreciated and respected,” and glowing with self-confidence. The statements and body language are hardly as positively charged upon returns from Europe. Being scolded about the violation of rights or reform shortcomings understandably does not feel as good. However, statements from leading Turkish politicians such as “the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU” aggravate the problem. The domestic “other” The 2009 EU progress report on Turkey, published last October, was not debated in Turkey nearly as intensely as past years. Neither were the discussions of the EU Summit, held December 10-11. While the EU process loses
A Eurobarometer survey released in mid-December 2009 found only 45 percent of Turks supportive of EU membership—3 percent less than the same survey six months prior. 6 Transatlantic Trends (2009). The German Marshall Fund of the United States. Available at: http://

Dan Bilefsky. “Sarkozy blocks key part of EU entry talks on Turkey,” New York Times, June 25, 2007.



momentum, the agenda in Turkey has been consumed with clashing concepts of citizenship, competing patronage networks, colliding dogmatic visions, and culture wars. Loopholes in the constitutional system have allowed these battles to cause systemic deadlocks. The dysfunction in institutional checks and balances has led to a broad feeling of insecurity about the rule of law. By responding to this scene with patronizing and vengeful approaches, the government and its supporters only exacerbate the deficit of confidence and steepen the challenges for the government itself. For the progressive taboo-breaking initiatives on the agenda to succeed, a concerted effort to reduce the perceived insecurity is called for. As long as the culture of reliance or vulnerability to the good graces of a political power persists, the fierce polarization that prioritizes personal and group interests over Turkey’s long-term interests will continue. The institutional and structural changes that the EU track will impose can curb this culture. However, rhetoric also matters. For the government to convince a critical mass about its commitment to its declared goals, rhetoric about freedoms and pluralism needs to be consistent across the ruling party’s ranks and across the range of issues on the agenda. Turkey should certainly help the European Union help Turkey by adding momentum to the accession process; however, for the virtual cycle to take hold, EU political leadership is also critical. To the extent that, for reasons stemming from EU politics, Turkey’s accession process risks leading nowhere, it is less likely that the issue of integration can unite divergent political interests in Turkey. As Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who held the EU presidency at the time, recently noted in an interview with this author, “the EU project and its important components, ranging from the euro to enlargement, have been the result of political leadership, not the result of a groundswell of love toward each other among different European nations. In fact, very little would have happened in the last 50 years without political leadership.” Now is the time for the Turkish government and European leaders to demonstrate serious leadership.

About the GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at or subscribe to our mailing list at


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