Europe and Turkey: the end of the beginning

About the author
Fadi Hakura is a specialist on Turkish affairs at Chatham House, London.

3 October 2005 will be remembered as a momentous occasion in the tortuous tango between the European Union and Turkey. That day, the EU foreign ministers agreed collectively on the text of a “negotiating framework” laying the ground rules for the conduct of the EU-Turkey accession negotiations, thus paving the way for the opening of these negotiations.

The path to membership will be long and hard: Turkey’s entry to the European Union, if it happens, will not come until 2014 at the earliest. To understand the chances of the negotiations succeeding, a look at the past, present, and likely future of Turkish-European Union relations is needed.

Also in openDemocracy’s “The future of Turkey” debate:

Reinhard Hesse, “Turkish honey under a German moon” (March 2004) Alex Rondos, “Cyprus: the price of rejection” (April 2004) Murat Belge, “Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome” (December 2004) Fred Halliday, “Turkey and the hypocrisies of Europe” (December 2004)

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A long courtship

Turkey's long journey to the European Union began in 1963, when the two partners concluded an “association agreement”. This established a path towards the creation of a bilateral customs union; in other words, free circulation of EU and Turkish goods coupled with a common external tariff policy vis-à-vis trade with third countries. Besides economic integration, the agreement contained a commitment to a possible launch of accession talks sometime in the future.

A full generation later, in 1987, Turkey applied to join the EU. The European Commission – the executive arm of the EU – suspended the application but, crucially, acknowledged that the Turkish republic was “eligible” for EU membership. Thereafter, the pace of events accelerated markedly. In 1995, the EU and Turkey created their customs union; in 1999, the EU heads of state in declared Turkey a “candidate” state “destined to join the [European] Union”; and in 2002, EU leaders undertook to commence accession talks “without delay” provided Turkey fulfilled the so-called “Copenhagen criteria” – involving Turkish compliance with EU standards on democracy and human rights – by 2004.

In order to satisfy these criteria, Turkey – under the moderate Islamic Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development / AKP) elected in November 2002, led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and foreign minister Abdullah Gűl – swiftly adopted radical political and constitutional reforms. Military-civilian relations were rebalanced, human liberties were expanded, cultural minority entitlements enlarged, security courts and death penalty abolished, civil-status laws overhauled and the criminal justice system transformed.

By the time of the EU summit in Brussels in December 2004, the union’s leaders agreed that Turkey had met the Copenhagen criteria. They decided to begin accession talks with Turkey on 3 October 2005, subject to signing a “protocol” extending the customs union to include Cyprus (the state of the Greek population in the south of the island, which entered the European Union as part of the enlargement of May 2004).

The tension over Cyprus persisted when Turkey as EU candidate-state dutifully signed the protocol in July 2005 but added a declaration that its signature does not imply Turkish recognition of the Republic of Cyprus. The EU foreign ministers issued a counter-declaration stipulating that Turkey must extend such recognition to Greek Cyprus prior to accession. In addition, it demanded direct access for Greek Cypriot goods to Turkish seaports and airports.

Cyprus remained a point of contention until the last moment, when Turkey also objected to a form of words in the accession agreement that it saw as implying an obligation to accept the prospect of Cyprus joining Nato. This became part of the intense days of negotiation among EU leaders in the days and nights before 3 October. Austria’s government was particularly emphatic in insisting that the Turks should be offered “privileged partnership” with the EU rather than a guaranteed path to full membership of the EU. But on the very day of the deadline, the Austrian government dropped its objections and a deal was brokered.

Turkey's adventurous path

3 October may be the culmination of more than forty years of history, but it also clarifies how hard are the tasks to come. Accession is a slog, an endurance test, involving serious transitions in the candidate country that can be painful. Turkish membership would in the long run significantly change the European Union, but in the short term it is Turkey that will be under more intense scrutiny than ever.

The negotiating framework places robust and rigorous obligations on Turkey, subject to intensive EU monitoring. There are 100,000 pages of EU laws and regulations – known in EU jargon as acquis communautaire (or simply acquis) – that Turkey needs to implement. This acquis is divided into thirty-five “chapters” or policy areas covering such areas as competition policy, public procurement and environment. But even apart from the acquis, Turkey will face a multiplicity of other obligations: to modernise its judiciary, reform its public sector, curb corruption and streamline its administrative procedures. In addition, Turkey is likely to raise its standards to European Union norms and strategies in areas not covered by accession, such as health-service delivery and organisation of urban transport systems.

Although the negotiation agreement provides for 2014 as the earliest possible date for Turkey’s membership, it entails neither an irrevocable commitment nor a defined target date for accession; the process is “open-ended” without any guarantees. The negotiations can be suspended at any time if human-rights violations are “serious and persistent”.

In such respects, “negotiations” is clearly a misnomer; the process is less a give-and-take format of consensus politics than a one-way street. The candidate state has essentially to accept the entire package of EU obligations with minimal choice or discretion. Moreover, and unlike the enlargement that welcomed Poland, Hungary, and eight other states in 2004, Turkey will be required not merely to promise but actually to implement EU membership requirements during the process. The rhythm of the talks will match the speed of Turkey’s actions.

For each of the thirty-five chapters, EU negotiators – European Commission officials and representatives from EU member-states – may discuss possible “transitional measures” with the Turkish team. These are additional time-periods that may be granted to Turkey, allowing it to prolong implementation of especially onerous EU requirements, such as environmental and employment standards; they are supposed to be exceptional and limited in scope.

For its part, the EU will face the prospect of serious argument over the consequences of Turkish membership in the long term, including Turkish access to agricultural and regional subsidies and the easing of restrictions on the free movement of Turkish workers. EU member-states must agree unanimously to open or close each individual chapter; thus, every member-state has the right of veto over the entire process.

The end product of the membership discussions is the draft accession treaty, which must be approved by all EU member-states either by national parliament or referendum; France and Austria are among the states most likely to choose the latter option.

A happy marriage?

Three current political realities – the hostility of European public opinion in some countries towards Turkish membership, the lack of guarantees on accession, and the persistence of contentious issues like Cyprus – appear to cloud Turkey's EU objectives. But accession is a process not an event, likely to take ten-to-fifteen years, perhaps longer. By that time, both the European Union and Turkey may each have undergone unforeseen transformations that may ease anxieties on both sides.

The experience of earlier enlargements suggests that the accession process generates an internal dynamic of engagement and progress. The prospect of membership has been an important driver for foreign direct investment, economic advance and consolidation of democracy. If the pattern is repeated in Turkey, and the country succeeds in its reform efforts, the story of Turkey and Europe could indeed end in a harmonious marriage.