top of page

Une série d'articles

Design sans titre-2.png


logo trans.png

The enlargement of the European Union towards Turkey

The relationship between Turkey and the European Union is complex and multifaceted, and is of key importance at both national and European level, given its geopolitical, economic and cultural implications. From the first attempts at integration to the current accession negotiations, this dynamic has been marked by a series of ups and downs, reflecting the challenges inherent in the convergence of interests, values and political visions between the two parties. By examining the various aspects of their relationship, highlighting recent developments, persistent obstacles and future prospects, we can gain a better understanding of the issues and implications of this association.

By Mai-Ly Saulnier and Monica Zuccaro

erdogan et leyes

In early October 2023, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of the Republic of Turkey, declared that "Turkey no longer expects anything from the European Union, which has kept us waiting on its doorstep for sixty years", before adding: "We have kept all the promises we have made to the European Union, but they have kept almost none of theirs". On 8 November 2023, the European Commission will publish its eagerly awaited annual report on enlargement. Each year, its "Enlargement Package" examines the progress made, the challenges encountered and formulates proposals for the future of the current and potential candidate countries. In 2023, this package of around 1,500 pages will assess the performance of ten of them. However, while it has given the green light to certain countries, such as Ukraine and Moldova, Turkey remains at a standstill.

"We have kept all the promises we have made to the European Union, but they have kept almost none of theirs". Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Ukraine and Moldova are proceeding at a particularly brisk pace through a fast-track procedure to join the European Union, with European leaders unreservedly welcoming their willingness to meet the many reform demands made of them, while Turkey assures them that it will not "tolerate new demands or conditions in the accession process". This behaviour partly explains the way in which its position as a perpetual candidate is examined in a 141-page report published in conjunction with the enlargement package, which, while acknowledging that "Turkey remains a key partner for the European Union and a candidate country", highlights the finding that "The country has not reversed the negative trend away from the European Union and has pursued accession-related reforms only to a limited extent", and stresses the imperative of "taking decisive action".

If integration into the European Union is more than ever based on criteria of merit, the references to Turkey bear revealing witness to its lack of progress, real or perceived, in this area. Turkey has only completed two of the three phases of the accession procedure, and is still in the negotiation phase. What's more, out of a total of thirty-five negotiation chapters, sixteen have simply been opened, and only one has been closed; a position that clearly places it at the opposite end of the spectrum to the Ukrainian and Moldovan cases, whose entry risks pushing it even further away from European shores. Nacho Sanchez Amor, rapporteur for Turkey at the European Parliament, expressed his despondency: "There is a 'discouragement' towards Turkey in Europe", "We are tired of keeping the accession process alive when apparently there is no real political will on the other side to move forward along the democratic path".

An official candidate since 1999, Turkey, whose accession negotiations have been expressly frozen since 2018, is counting on answers from the European executive. The latter, in turn, has numerous requests for the country, still waiting to be met. What about the "Turkish question" on the European Union's horizon? To understand what is at stake in this status, we need to look back at the historical milestones in this turbulent relationship.

When Turkey moved closer to the West

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey implemented radical policies aimed at moving closer culturally and politically to the West, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, general, founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. His dream was to build a modern, secular Turkey by looking to the European states. He therefore adopted reforms aimed at modernising the education and legal systems, promoting, among other things, the emancipation of women, who were able to exercise their right to vote in 1934, and the adoption of the Latin alphabet.

The reforms had brought results. In 1949, Turkey was one of the first member states of the Council of Europe, and in 1952 it became a member of NATO. What's more, this cultural change enabled Turkey to obtain the status of associate member of the recently born European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963, which it had applied for in 1959. The pact became known as the "Ankara agreements" and provided for the gradual construction of the Customs Union to improve economic and trade relations.

The first obstacle to this process arose in 1974, when the Turkish army invaded the northern part of Cyprus following a coup d'état carried out by the Greek military junta. The division of the island as a result of the conflict played (and still plays) a key role in Turkey's chances of joining the EU. Nevertheless, the association pact paved the way for Ankara to join the EEC, which submitted an official application for membership in 1987 and was only considered a candidate in 1999 due to deep economic, political and cultural differences with its members. At the end of the 1980s, Turkey's GDP per capita was $1,700, compared with $16,000 in Germany and France. So what delayed Turkey's application was the huge economic gap, combined with the geopolitical situation in Europe (the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany) and the continuing weak relations with Cyprus and Greece.

New tensions arose in 2004, when the EU welcomed 10 new members (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary) who had applied for membership after Turkey, even though Turkey's accession process had not yet begun. For Ankara, this was an affront, given the improvements made over the years. Finally, in 2005 the framework for negotiations was defined. Nevertheless, despite the growth in GDP per capita (from $3,100 in 2001 to $10,615 in 2010) and the improvement in infrastructure in the 2000s, the results achieved by Turkey were not sufficient for the country to be admitted to the EU. Furthermore, following the coup d'état in 2016, negotiations in the following years stalled and no significant progress has been made since.

At the same time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seemed to give credence to this prospect, in that he peremptorily announced: "If necessary, our roads will separate with the European Union [...] The European Union is seeking to distance itself from Turkey. We will make our own assessment of the situation and we too may take a different direction", before retracting his incisive words a month later: "If the European Union intends to end the accession process that exists only on paper, that will be their decision". As a result, Turkey's position on whether or not to pursue its candidacy fluctuates between a willingness to persevere with its commitment and an inclination to abandon it altogether.

For its part, the European Union mainly expresses its position through an eloquent silence which, because of its persistence, is hard to overlook, generally avoiding tackling the issue head-on. At the end of the NATO summit on 11 and 12 July 2023, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, nevertheless promised on the social network X (formerly Twitter) to explore "Opportunities to make our cooperation important again and to reinvigorate our relations", after Turkey had blocked Sweden's application to join NATO, declaring, accompanied by a feeling of blackmail perceived not without reluctance by Europeans: "First pave the way for Turkey's membership of the European Union and then we will pave the way for Sweden. "

By combining these two seemingly separate issues, Turkey has succeeded in speeding up the reassessment of its situation, thereby considerably advancing its European agenda. While this initiative seems to have produced the desired results, it is welcomed within the country, but perceived differently by the media. An Islamo-nationalist newspaper, Yeni Safak, for example, ran the headline: "Farewell to the EU: Inshallah", claiming that "Turkey does not need the European Union, nor its lessons and contemptuous admonitions", and that "Breaking with the European Union is a dream, the severing of those ties that would allow our nation to regain its self-confidence". Despite the emergence of new proposals covering various areas such as the customs union, migration, the visa regime, energy and the climate, both parties consider themselves to have been wronged in the end.

Moreover, within the European executive apparatus, many questions are being raised and feelings of uncertainty are growing as this bilateral vagueness continues. Thus, in November 2023, a European official, whose testimony is conditional on his anonymity, confided his doubts to the press: "Ukraine's accession will fundamentally transform the European Union, and it will be practically impossible for it to welcome a new Member State such as Turkey". All eyes are therefore on both parties: whatever the outcome, this situation, which has gone on for far too long, must come to an end. With Turkey categorically refusing to make any further efforts, and the European Union laying down a list of absolute conditions, it looks as if the "Turkish question" could come to an end, and the European horizon could be shaped without it.

While Turkey is increasingly committed to an uncompromising nationalist orientation, in stark contrast to its persistent desire to engage in the EU enlargement process, it is notable that these two actors are resolutely moving in divergent directions. Although their trajectories appear to have converged momentarily, it is becoming increasingly clear that they are ultimately heading for distinct fates. At the end of the day, there is one overriding message emanating from both camps: wait and see. Turkey is anxious for the talks to be unblocked, while the European Union is hoping for the substantial reforms needed to relaunch them; however, the question of how long this wait will last remains open.

Indeed, if Turkey is prepared to wait as long as necessary to see its accession become a reality one day, it is relevant to ask whether the European Union is prepared to exercise the same patience towards Turkey. At a time when it is experiencing a period of growth and expansion, the Union finds itself on the threshold of a new European era. In the midst of demands, metamorphosis and progress, the question arises as to whether it wishes to incorporate the vestiges of a conflicted past in its quest for a new identity, by offering them a new interpretation, or to turn the page definitively on this inglorious period of its history.

Ultimately, the result is that this relationship is not perfectly balanced, insofar as Turkey shows a more pronounced desire for this cooperation than its counterpart; and if Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, affirms that in the enlargement process, "We are all winners", in the event of a final failure of its accession process, Turkey would all the more be the big loser. Therefore, if Turkey really wants to play a part in shaping the future of Europe, and in the adventure that this will bring, it will have to show that it is capable of demonstrating its commitment tangibly and, above all, promptly. Otherwise, it could miss this opportunity irretrievably, remaining forever on the fringes of a Europe it has sincerely coveted, but never fully integrated.

Raising the Turkish question

For the moment, relations between Turkey and the European Union are based mainly on a system of fair reciprocity, and if this dynamic does not improve, there is a risk that they will remain limited to cordial commercial partnerships, which is not fully satisfactory for either of them. What's more, according to Olivér Várhelyi, European Commissioner for Enlargement, despite diverging perspectives on many issues, there are more points of convergence between them than of divergence. It is clear, for example, that the aim is not to integrate Turkey into Europe as it is at present, but to encourage it to continue its efforts to transform itself and prove its compatibility. Although the road ahead is long and arduous, as long as Turkey meets European standards and fully respects its values, all other things being equal, it would be counterproductive to deny it this opportunity.



bottom of page