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An agenda for the long haul – Towards 2023

Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule. Photo: Council of the EU 2010
Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu,
Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule. Photo: Council of the EU 2010

The EU-Turkey Negotiating Framework, adopted by the European Council in October 2005, stipulates that a qualified majority of member states may suspend the accession negotiations with Turkey. Yet, it also says, this may only take place "in the case of a serious and persistent breach in Turkey of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law on which the Union is founded." In other words, the trigger has to come from Turkey. Barring a systematic crackdown on the freedom of expression or a military takeover, the EU cannot unilaterally stop a process to which it has committed itself under the Negotiating Framework.

This should soothe Turkish anxieties, but only to a certain extent. Although far more stable today than it was a decade ago, Turkey is still not immune to political earthquakes. In fact, it narrowly averted one as recently as in 2008, when the country's Constitutional Court came within a single vote of banning the ruling AKP. The closure case, if successful, would have placed the accession process in more danger than any other event over the past decade. In the summer of 2008, fears that the EU was readying for a decision to suspend the negotiations were, for once, well founded.

The Kemalist legacy still dominates Turkey. Photo: Sena Maric/ESI

Opposition to Turkey's EU membership exists both in the EU and in Turkey. This ought to come as no surprise. Coming from a proud and fiercely independent country, only one century removed from being an empire that stretched from the Adriatic to the Persian Gulf, some Turks even ask why they should pool so much sovereignty with a Union that – as many of them see it – is prejudiced towards their culture, their nation, and their religion. Europeans, meanwhile, wonder whether and when Turkey will meet the EU's standards for entry. They ponder the prospect of a Union that might one day border Iraq, Iran, and Syria. They also realise that an EU that includes Turkey (and the smaller Western Balkan states) would be a very different institution: by 2023 it would have some 600 million inhabitants, including perhaps 100 million European Muslims. For some, this is a good reason to support this visionary enlargement; for others, such a change is above all a cause for concern. In any case, it is clear that such a transformation can only proceed slowly and will require sustained efforts to make the case that accession would be both in Turkey's and in the EU's interest.

Such efforts are not only Europe's to make. So long as Turkey does not regress on the path to democracy or take to populist sabre-rattling and nationalist hysteria, its EU perspective will remain intact. However, by painting European opposition to Turkish accession as essentially an expression of Western Islamophobia, accusing the EU of double standards, and blaming it, and nothing else, for the slowdown in negotiations – all while insisting that Turkey no longer needs Europe to grow and reform – the Turkish government runs the risk of boxing itself and future governments into a corner. The resentment against the EU that such rhetoric creates threatens to feed into popular expectations, even demands that Turkey walk away from the negotiations, pride intact. With popular support for accession in Turkey falling (from 71 to 47 percent between 2004 and 2010, according to Eurobarometer), this is becoming a serious concern for those who fear that the Turkish-European marriage could become dysfunctional.

Michael Emerson, Centre for European Policy Studies.
Photo: Centre for European Policy Studies

Whatever their pace, however, the negotiations will not unravel on their own. As long as Turkey takes a rational view of the benefits of the accession process, the negotiations cannot stop. As Michael Emerson suggested already back in December 2006, Turkey should "play it long and cool" and "continue alignment on the EU acquis unilaterally, with priority for those elements that are clearly useful for Turkey's own economic and political system."

Turkey has followed such advice thus far. It is very likely to continue doing so in the coming years as well. It is thanks to its doggedness and its commitment to the EU process that Turkey is a much more democratic and economically resilient place than a decade ago. What drives the enlargement process, after all, is interests, not grand speeches and blue-eyed idealism. And while nobody can look into the future, for now it is reasonable to expect there to be a lot more life in the Turkish accession story.

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