Turkey’s EU accession and democratization process

Dr. Murat Tümay*


The European Union is undoubtedly one of the major success stories to emerge from a violent century that saw millions of Europeans lose their lives in hostilities and conflict.


The European Union could be described as a liberal, democratic and voluntary empire expanding continuously outward as some other countries seek to join it. It has become a gigantic political and economic magnet whose greatest strength is the attractive pull it exerts on its neighbours. Europe’s foreign policy today is enlargement; its most potent foreign policy tool is what the EU’s Robert Cooper calls “the lure of membership.” This expanding Europe absorbs problems and conflicts rather than directly confronting them in the American style. The lure of membership has helped stabilize the Balkans and influenced the political course of Turkey. Being a postgraduate researcher from Turkey in the field of international human rights law and political science, I believe that the EU accession process has contributed greatly to democratic reforms in Turkey. The Turkish people’s desire to join the European Union and the related accession process have led Turkey to modify and reform its legal code and expand fundamental rights to conform to European standards.

Turkey is a large country with a strategically important but complex and sensitive geographical location. It is a secular state with a large Muslim population. The main impacts on the EU come from these characteristics. In strategic and geopolitical terms, Turkish accession is mainly positive for the union. It is in the EU’s strategic interest that Turkey is democratic, stable and prosperous and a friendly ally. Turkish EU membership can contribute to these strategic goals. The impact of Turkish accession — and of opening accession negotiations — in demonstrating that the EU is a secular, multicultural body and not a “Christian club” will also have important geopolitical ramifications. Turkey is the only pluralist secular democracy in the Muslim world and has always attached great importance to developing its relations with other European countries. Historically the Turkish culture has had a profound impact on much of eastern and southern Europe.

The history of relations between Turkey and EU goes back a long way. While relations can probably be traced to earlier years, the conclusion in 1963 of the Association Agreement is generally taken as the point of departure. Ever since Turkey closely aligned itself with the West and became a founding member of the United Nations, a member of NATO and the Council of Europe and associate member of the Western European Union. During the Cold War Turkey was part of the Western alliance, defending freedom, democracy and human rights. In this respect, Turkey has played, and continues to play, a vital role in the defence of the European continent and the principal elements of its foreign policy have converged with those of its European partners. Thus having aligned itself both militarily and politically to its western European counterparts, Turkey aims to align itself economically as well. Thus Turkey chose to begin close cooperation with the fledgling European Economic Community (EEC) in 1959. In July 1959, shortly after the creation of the EEC in 1958, Turkey made its first application to join. The EEC’s response to Turkey’s application in 1959 was to suggest the establishment of an association until Turkey’s circumstances permitted its accession. The 1999 Helsinki European Council recognized Turkey as a candidate to become a member of the EU. In Copenhagen two years later the EU confirmed Turkey’s candidacy by offering it a conditional timeframe for starting accession negotiations. In December 2002 the EU concluded that it would open accession negotiations with Turkey without delay if by December 2004 Turkey met the political criteria: institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. As Turkey met these criteria it started accession negotiations in October 2005.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, most European policymakers were suspicious of bringing Turkey into the European Union and inheriting nightmarish neighbours such as Iraq and Syria. Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq have forced the re-evaluation of the potential contribution of Turkish membership in the EU. Therefore it is now believed that Turkey’s membership is a strategic necessity if the EU wants to be a global player in the world politics arena. Modernizing a largely Muslim country based on the shared values of Europe would be a very valuable achievement for Europe in the war against terrorism. The membership of Turkey to EU would provide the real proof that Islam and modernity, Islam and the rule of law and this great cultural tradition and human rights and democracy are after all compatible. Obviously this would be the greatest positive challenge for these totalitarian and terrorist ideas. And also, as a candidate member state of the EU currently and a full member state in the future, Turkey will play a fundamental role in modernizing and transforming Muslim countries toward democracy. The argument that Turkey’s membership will serve as a bridge between Europe and the Islamic world has seduced several EU leaders and also an important number of parliament members. One of the most outspoken among them was Michel Rocard who, in his intervention in the debate, asserted that this point, beyond the symbolic dimension, has a major strategic importance.

Turkey’s strategic geographical location and its large Muslim population also have implications for the EU. It is in the EU’s strategic interest that Turkey be democratic, stable, prosperous and a friendly ally. Turkish EU membership can — as with earlier enlargements — contribute to these strategic goals. The impact of Turkish accession and of opening accession negotiations on demonstrating that the EU is a secular, multicultural body, not just a “Christian club,” will also have important geopolitical ramifications.

Many from both sides of the Islam-secularism divide will insist that the EU should take Turkey as a future member to show it is multicultural and not a “Christian club.” Islamic fundamentalism and Kurdish separatism have long been seen by the secularist establishment, especially the military, as the two main challenges to the integrity of the Turkish state; this has led some to see minority, cultural and religious rights as potentially threatening. Many agree that fundamentalists probably make up only about 10 percent of the Turkish population, but there is a widespread fear among secularists that growing Islamic conservatism could result in social pressures restricting their own freedoms — with pressure for women to adopt the veil frequently cited. Given the symbolism of the veil in this debate, action to improve the much criticized and deeply embedded low economic, social and political status of women in Turkish society, promote gender equality and thereby strengthen the independence of women and their freedom of choice is not only one vital element of true modernization (that no government in Turkey has yet achieved), and of EU accession, but could also contribute to easing some of the fears expressed on the secularist side.

Optimists suggest that both sides are modernizing and that greater mutual tolerance will develop, allowing a more pluralist multicultural society to develop. In its internal debates and divides, Turkey reflects, at least partially, the different viewpoints among member states such as France and the UK over combining secularism and multiculturalism. These debates also show that when and if Turkey joins the EU, it will add to the complexity of the debate already occurring in the EU, rather than representing one simple position. These divides and deep suspicions between different groups in Turkey also explain the power of the EU framework and the membership goal. The EU framework in Turkey can both help to underline intentions in promoting democratic reform as genuine and, in the future, allow more religious freedom and genuine multiculturalism than at present. For the secularists, the EU can help to ensure a continued separation of state and religion, and guarantee that a weakening of the power and ultimate control of the military does not open the door to fundamentalism or to Kurdish separatism.

On the other hand, it can be implied that opposition and tension in Turkey will remain and resistance to reforms will continue. Inevitably, the process of radical political reform is changing power relations. At the same time, there is also widespread distrust that the EU will really play by its own rules. Many Turks are half expecting an EU rejection regardless of what reforms Turkey executes — just one more factor that has impacts on implementation. The government, too, has perhaps been slow to appreciate the importance the EU places on implementation, preoccupied as it has been with legal reforms, although it has established a high-level reform monitoring committee to push implementation forward. Others emphasize that the sweeping reforms in Turkey demand a big shift in mentality from the whole population and that this inevitably will take time. Turkey’s large rural/urban divide is also an important factor. Some commentators suggest that, while in urban areas there is now much greater awareness of individual rights, this is much less so in the large rural segment of the population.

Turkey will have an important impact on EU foreign policy interests given its borders with the Middle East, Caucasus and the Black Sea. This will shift the union’s borders to the southeast and increase its range of interests in these difficult regions. Turkey will look to be a significant player in the development of EU foreign policy. Many anticipate that the accession of Turkey as a secular state with a large Muslim population will contribute to the development and acceptance of multiculturalism in the EU within its overall secular framework (the EU having always been a secular organization). As discussed in part one, this impact may be quite complex; Turkey has its own vigorous debates and conflicts over multiculturalism and the relation between religion and the state. Nonetheless, the acceptance of Turkey as a member — and the start of negotiations — will be seen by many both within the EU and globally, as a sign that the EU is not just a “Christian club.” At a time when the “war on terror” is creating global tensions and division, and where 9/11 created a backlash toward many Muslims worldwide, Turkey’s relations with the EU take on a broad geopolitical significance. A rejection of Turkey by the EU would be taken as a strong negative signal by many.

*Honorary Research Fellow at University of Leicester, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at[email protected]

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