By AARON DENISON
Special to Pulse News Mexico
Ever since 1987, when Turkey’s eighth president, Turgut Ozal, first submitted an application, Ankara has been courting European Union (EU) membership. But, until now, Turkey has failed to convince the EU and its member states that it is fit to be a part of the European community.
There are many factors that have contributed to the failure of Turkey’s application. One that has been heavily debated concerns historical perspectives based on culture and identity. Also, on examining the history of Europe’s relation with the Ottoman Empire in the past, some Europeans still remember the shadows of conflict.
To quote Austrian professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic of Vienna’s International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies: “While the cacophony of European contradictions works toward a self-elimination of the EU from the MENA/Euro-Med region, Turkey tries to reinsert itself. The so-called neo-Ottomanism of the current government is steering the country right into the center of grand bargaining for both Russia and the United States. To this emerging triangular constellation, ambitious and bold (President Tayyip) Erdoğan wishes to beat his own drum … Past the Arab Spring, Turkey wakes up to itself as the empiric proof that Islam and modernity work together. In fact, it is the last European nation that still has both demographic and economic growth … Moreover, Ataturk’s Republic is by large and by far the world’s most successful Muslim state: It was never resting its development on oil or other primary-commodity exports, but on a vibrant socioeconomic sector and solid democratic institutions … The very outcome will be felt significantly beyond the Arab region and will reverberate all across the Sunni Muslim world.”
Besides the factors of history, culture and identity, there are also war and human rights issues that have hindered Turkey’s EU membership. Turkey got involved in a bloody Kurdish revolution in Southeast Anatolia during the mid-1980s. Turkey was accused of abusing human rights as well as persecuting the minorities during the revolution. Turkey’s failure to improve human rights and the rights of minorities make it difficult for the country to be accepted into the EU. In addition, the EU also raised doubts about Turkey’s ability to implement the necessary social, political and economic adjustments needed to enter the bloc. Government-led restrictions on media freedom and freedom of expression in 2015 also have been used to discredit political opposition and prevent scrutiny of government policies in the run-up to the two general elections. Recently, Erdoğan has been arresting political activists, journalists and others critical of public officials he has linked to the attempted the July 2016 military coup. These are all the issues that have contributed to and effected Turkey’s EU membership application.
Another factor that has contributed to the failure of Turkey’s EU membership application is the fact that it currently occupies the northern part of Cyprus. The issue of Cyprus and Turkey became significant when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 in retaliation for Greek occupation of the island since 1964. At present, Turkish troops occupy the northern part of Cyprus while the southern part of the island is independent. In May 2004, Cyprus was accepted as an EU member state and Turkey remained on the sidelines. The membership of Cyprus in the EU has made in even more difficult for Turkey to become a member and it constitutes an important obstacle for EU accession of Turkey. Cyprus, as a member of the EU, has used its veto to block Turkey’s negotiations on accession with the European Union. A divided Cyprus has definitely made things more complicated between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus.
There is also another important historical factor that has effected Turkey’s EU membership. In 1981, while Turkey was in isolation due to its domestic problems, Greece became a EU member. This basically meant that as a EU member, Greece had veto powers to indirectly block Turkey from becoming a member.
In addition, Greece’s ascension to the EU gave Athens the ultimate opportunity to point the finger at Turkey for being a territorial invader, representing a breach of the idea of a European identity based on the values of peace and democracy.
Despite all these factors, Turkey applied for full EU membership in 1987, but, as expected, the EU said Turkey was not ready for the membership. In December 1989, the EU decided that it would not accept any new members at that moment. In regards to Turkey’s application, the European Union said it had concerns about Ankara’s developmental gap.
But beyond the Cyprus issue, there are other factors hindering Turkey’s EU application. The collapse of communism in Europea in 1992 definitely had an impact on Turkey’s membership. Central and Eastern European countries were performing poorly economically after the fall of the Berlin Wall and all the help they could get from the Western European community through the EU. These countries were given priority because they were perceived to be more culturally a part of Europe than Turkey. This resulted in the prioritization of the Central and Eastern European countries as member states and Turkey fell down in ranking on the pecking order.
In addition, there were concerns among the EU member states regarding the distribution of votes within the Council of Ministers and the number of seats in the European Parliament. This is because both criteria’s are based on size of population of the member states. The concern here was that Turkey might have the second-highest population after Germany if it became a EU member state. That would mean that Turkey could influence decision-making in the European Union.
Another important factor was that Turkey has failed to live by the Copenhagen Criteria politically, although it performed were brilliantly in economic terms, meeting almost all the entry criteria.
The political aspect of the Copenhagen Criteria is one of the challenges faced by Turkey.
There are still no major improvements in terms of human rights, although steps were taken to improve them.
In addition, there are still problems related to the democratic structure of Turkey as civilian control over the government is yet to be addressed.
The Cyprus issue was not significant or crucial in Turkey’s EU membership application before the island nation became an EU member in 2004. During the initial phase of Turkey’s membership application, there was much more two-way discussion without any external interference because it was not yet influenced by the Cyprus issue.
But once Cyprus became an EU member in 2004, troubles began for Turkey. Cyprus used its veto to block six chapters that were important to make sure that Turkey’s EU membership negotiation could take place. This is because Turkey was not taking steps to end their occupation in Northern Cyprus.
In the end, the veto power that Cyprus currently has plays an important role in ensuring Turkey will not become an EU member.
Aaron Denison is a research assistant at the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia-Europe Institute.