Written by Elif Kılıç & Bora Kutluk
Since the European Union came to be in 1993, Türkiye has spent countless efforts to become a member state. From a European Union Ministry working on carrying Türkiye to EU standards to countless diplomatic meetings, all attempts to be a part of this powerful international organization has been ineffective. Although the Union was made official in 1993, Türkiye has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1950. This means that it is subject to the decisions of European Court of Human Rights. Despite this, Türkiye has disobeyed some court decisions especially of those regarding imprisoned journalists and political prisoners.
Türkiye's membership talks were officially launched in 2005, and great progress was made in opening and completing negotiating chapters. These chapters, each covering a separate policy area requiring conformity with EU standards, were viewed as critical stepping stones on the way to admission. Concurrently, Türkiye's significant economic growth during this period created an opportunity for the EU. Strong economic links were formed, bolstering trade and investment relations and instilling confidence in the economic dimension of admission.
Despite this improvement, certain problems persisted. The unresolved Cyprus dispute remained a contentious topic, affecting Türkiye-EU relations. In the end, the refusal of Türkiye to recognize the Republic of Cyprus has hampered negotiations.
It was by the end of 2002 that a new era began for Turkish politics, thus for Türkiye-European Union relations as well. As a result of the snap election in November, Justice and Development Party (AKP) got two-thirds of parliamentary seats despite its newly establishment, making the politician Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Türkiye’s prime minister. Pursuing a neo-liberal policy in contrast to the Islamic tradition he comes from, thus garnering great support from Western countries, Erdoğan held out the promise of Türkiye’s full membership to the EU.
In the end, due to reforms providing the abolishment of the death penalty and reducing the military influence on politics, The European Commission accepted Türkiye’s application and started full membership negotiations with Türkiye on 3 October 2005. However, the opening of new negotiation chapters progressed very slowly and the EU even froze some chapters, citing that Türkiye did not recognize one of the EU member states, Republic of Cyprus, as a sovereign state, stagnating the Türkiye-EU relations. Additionally, the replacement of social democratic European governments by Christian democratic ones, such as Merkel and Sarkozy cabinets, raised questions regarding how “European” Türkiye is. Especially Sarkozy’s statements that were separating Türkiye from Europe by emphasizing Türkiye’s “Eastern” and “Muslim” identity strengthened the cultural barrier Türkiye and Europe even more.
In 2011, when the Syrian war broke out, escaping Syrian refugees saw Türkiye as the most feasible country to seek asylum in because of its policies and location. The ongoing US involvement in Iraq also added to the number of incoming refugees to Türkiye. Since the 2015 migrant crisis, EU has seen Türkiye as essentially a buffer zone and pushed Türkiye to put extra effort into protecting its land and maritime borders to the EU to prevent human smuggling and illegal migration. On top of that, Türkiye went through a series of severe inner commotions, collectively known as the Gezi Park protests. Erdoğan’s expanding authority and unapproved policies radically united the country to uprise, but it also brought about many arrests and controversies on freedom and democracy in the country. These set the negotiations back rapidly, and the EU started showing has shown support for Gezi Park demonstrators. These events later were going to be followed by Türkiye’s military intervention in Syria under the name of “protecting borders” and “bringing peace”.
With the coup attempt that took place unexpectedly on 15 July 2016, Türkiye’s agenda has evolved to a whole different point. Erdoğan’s regime, which has divided the country in two since then. Journalists were arrested, political opponents were imprisoned with accusations of terrorism, and the parliamentary system was abolished. Moreover, Erdoğan’s government rejected the decisions of ECHR demanding the fair trial of opponents such as Selahattin Demirtaş and Osman Kavala, which caused a legal dispute between Türkiye and EU. After all, the EU has decided not to restart accession negotiations with Türkiye, de facto suspending Türkiye’s full membership process.
Nevertheless, the EU’s blocking of Türkiye’s membership was not just about human rights violations or the deteriorating Turkish economy. At this point, two demographic problems is at play:
Firstly, Türkiye became the most populated country in Europe after surpassing Germany in 2019, and had a higher fertility rate than any other EU member. Inherently, it is a distaste, especially to Germany and France, since Türkiye’s participation would ultimately help it gain numerical superiority in the EU and in the European Parliament.
Secondly, and more importantly, the 2015 migrant crisis, which has been a burden on Türkiye due to the refugee problem between the AKP government and the EU, eventually led to the settlement of millions of registered and unregistered immigrants from all across the world in Turkish territory. The prospect that an unknown number of immigrants will be free to reside and move on European territory within the EU frightens the current member states, who, clearly, do not want more immigrants. Taking into consideration the fact that these immigrants are mostly from socioculturally underdeveloped countries, such as Syria and Afghanistan, raises the question: “How can ‘the new Türkiye’ demographically adapt to Europe from now on?”
Edited by Melisa Altıntaş and Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu.