By Alex Roberds, Global Governance Analyst
As the European Union works to contain the fallout of last month’s Brexit vote, it has started a new round of membership talks with Turkey. Official negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU began more than ten years ago, but progress has been slow. The prospect of EU membership has been a major motivator for Turkey in its dealings with Europe – especially the recent EU-Turkey deal to address the migrant crisis, in which the two sides agreed to “re-energize” membership talks. But is Turkey really ready to join the EU, and is the EU ready to accept Turkey?
Copenhagen Membership Criteria
One of the first considerations for Turkey’s accession to the EU is the fulfillment of the “Copenhagen Criteria,” the standards for membership as laid down by the European Council in 1993. The requirements include stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; a working market economy; and the ability to fulfill the obligations of membership in the Union. Turkey must fulfill all of these criteria to join, and there are several concerns at this point in time.
A recent law signed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an dealt a damaging blow to Turkey’s chances of meeting the Copenhagen Criteria as it seriously threatens democratic institutions in the country. The law removed lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution, which could allow more than 100 members of parliament who are under investigation to be prosecuted and jailed. These members of parliament are primarily from the pro-Kurdish HDP and CHP, the main opposition party to Erdo?an’s AKP. This move will eliminate major parliamentary opposition and allow Erdo?an to continue with his proposal to amend the country’s constitution in ways that would give the presidency more power, potentially undermining existing checks and balances within the government.
This is not the first time that President Erdo?an has threatened democratic institutions. Turkey was recently criticized by Freedom House for suppressing speech and press freedoms. The government has often punished critical reporting and exerted power over media owners to influence media content and prevent criticism. These actions have earned Turkey a 151st place ranking out of 180 nations on the 2016 World Press Freedom Index.
EU-Turkey migrant deal
While the March deal between the EU and Turkey was an opportunity to deepen cooperation between the two sides, it has instead increased tensions. Turkey agreed to alleviate the burden of migration on Europe by taking back migrants who make their way to Greece by way of smugglers. For every Syrian migrant sent back to Turkey, the EU agreed to take one already settled in Turkey and pay up to €6 billion to improve the lives of the refugees already in the country. Additionally, negotiations for Turkey’s accession to the EU would be restarted.
Since the deal was reached, Turkey has threatened to suspend it if certain demands are not met – specifically, that Turkish citizens be granted visa-free travel by the EU. Before being granted visa-free status, the EU asked Turkey to meet 72 criteria by a deadline set for early June. Rather than meet these criteria, the Turkish government demanded that they be weakened, which the European Commission rejected. As a result, Turkey was not granted visa-free status. This setback has the potential to derail the migrant deal and postpone negotiations for Turkey’s accession, but the outcome will depend on Turkey’s reaction to this recent development.
One of the largest potential problems for Turkey’s accession process is Cyprus, which Turkey currently does not recognize as a sovereign state. Roughly one third of the island nation was occupied by Turkey in 1974 and has been the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since 1983. Turkey is the sole recognizer of Northern Cyprus, thereby refusing to recognize the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus over that territory. The issue has been frozen for decades, during which time Cyprus became a member of the EU.
This presents a major challenge for Turkey as all EU members must approve Turkey’s accession if it to join the EU. The Cypriot government has made it clear that it will not approve Turkish membership unless Turkey recognizes its sovereignty and resolves the current conflict on the island. Unless significant progress is made on this issue, the probability of Turkey joining the EU is close to zero.
Another major factor that influences Turkey’s prospects for EU accession is the rise of euroskepticism across Europe, which is leading many member states to turn inward. This sentiment can be seen in the rise of euroskeptic political parties throughout the EU, which was most apparent in Britain’s recent vote to leave the EU. Additionally, a recent poll showed that majorities in France and Italy believe that their respective nations should deal with their own problems and let other nations do the same. Another survey found that a majority in France, and pluralities in Germany, Spain and Sweden, want their own membership referenda.
Citizens who are unsure if they want to be in the EU themselves are less likely to want to assume the perceived problems of Turkey and other potential candidates for EU membership. This was illustrated in the Netherlands’ recent referendum on the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, which would have been a significant step toward Ukrainian membership in the EU. Roughly 61% of Dutch voters rejected the treaty, preventing it from going into effect. Such a precedent does not bode well for Turkey’s membership bid, as the same voters would be unlikely to approve Turkish membership if they rejected a much less ambitious agreement with Ukraine.
Turkish membership was even an issue during the Brexit debate, as many in the “leave” camp expressed the concern that they would be unable to prevent its accession. While the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the EU was a minor component of the “leave” campaign, the fact that it played a role in convincing Britons to leave the Union altogether shows how difficult it would be to persuade the citizens of Europe to approve Turkish membership at this time.
Where does this leave Turkey?
Given the current state of Turkey’s accession to the EU, membership is a distant prospect. Under President Erdo?an, Turkey has moved further away from its democratic institutions, which could preclude membership altogether. The recent migrant deal has not fostered deeper cooperation between the two sides, but instead created tension that will not work in Turkey’s favor. Unless it changes its position on Cyprus, Turkey will also face open opposition by the Cypriot government and people, which alone is enough to prevent it from joining the EU.
EU leaders must remain clear and firm with Turkey about what needs to happen before it can proceed with the process. Turkey must go through radical changes before it is ready to become a part of the Union. The institutions of democracy must be strengthened rather than undermined by the ruling party, and civil liberties must be respected and protected rather than suppressed. Until these steps are taken, Turkey is more likely to be a neighbor of Europe than a member of it.