Turkey’s Long Road to EU Accession

Earlier this month, Turkey launched a new public relations initiative to improve its image in the EU as part of an attempt to kick-start accession negotiations.  Titled the ‘European Union Communication Strategy’, the new scheme promotes a redraft of the country’s military-leaning constitution and increased implementation of laws that comply with EU standards.  The initiative, led by Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), is anticipated to be fully enacted by the end of 2019.[1]  This kind of timescale is nothing new in relation to Turkey’s accession process.  While the country become an associate member in 1963 and applied for full membership in 1987, negotiations only started in 2005, and are predicted to continue for at least another fifteen years.  Last year Egemen Bağış, then Minister for EU affairs in Turkey, went so far as to say that ‘Turkey will have to accept that it’s long held dream of joining the EU will not materialise.’[2] Bagis also stated that despite modernisations, Turkey’s accession process had suffered as a result of the underlying prejudices of member states.

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Image courtesy of Kremlin.ru, ©2013, some rights reserved.


The current initiative has been eclipsed by outcries over Turkey’s human rights record, which has received renewed attention from the international community over the government’s reaction to the 2013-14 protests.  The Turkish government were criticised for their use of force in combatting the protests, in which eleven people were killed and eight thousand were injured.  They were also accused of downplaying the extent of the violence in the media.[3]  This is emblematic of the now twelve year incumbency of the AKP, who have been accused by Human Rights Watch of demonstrating ‘a growing intolerance of political opposition, public protest and critical media.’[4]  This has included the government’s failure to overturn Article 301, Turkey’s controversial law which makes it illegal to insult the Turkish government.  While the law was amended in 2008 in an attempt to prevent misuse of the article, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) still brands it as ‘a continuing threat to the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.’[5]

As Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe, the ECHR still holds authority over Turkish cases of Human Rights abuses.  However, the process of deciding a case at the ECHR takes five years to complete, and there is currently a backlog of cases of which Turkey accounts for about ten per cent.  While the court’s primary advantage is supposedly political distance from the cases it reviews, it has been accused of having limited influence on implementing its jurisdiction in Turkey.  Conversely, the court has been dismissed elsewhere in Europe as too interventionist: British Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed his opposition to the judicial supremacy of the ECHR, particularly over controversial issues such as granting prisoners the right to vote. ECHR President Dean Spielmann has warned that if the UK chooses to leave the Council of Europe, it would undermine the convention and create the impression of a double standard in Human Rights legislation, therefore setting ‘a bad example’ for member states like Turkey.[6]  In short, while Turkey has become a symbol of everything Europe theoretically rejects in terms of human rights, the country is not alone in failing to comprehensively implement the ECHR’s principles.

Meanwhile, other EU member states have cited Turkey’s human rights record as reason enough to completely reject the country’s potential membership.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a strong opponent of Turkey’s actions during the 2013 protests, has stated that she would prefer Turkey to become a partial member rather than achieve full membership status.[7]  While in power, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy even went so far as to state that ‘Je veux être l’ami de la Turquie, mais je dis que la Turquie n’a pas sa place en Europe, tout simplement parce qu’elle est en Asie mineure’[8]  This may explain why Bulgaria and Romania, despite failures to comply with Human Rights legislation, have achieved EU membership status, while Turkey’s accession negotiations have been all but frozen.  In essence, Eastern European countries symbolise the ‘safe’ side of EU expansion and multiculturalism, while Turkey simply lies too far east for comfort.  There is the fear that Turkish entry into the EU could give way to the entry of other near-Asian countries, and Turkey would also be the EU’s first predominantly Muslim nation. Despite the official secularism of both Turkey and the European Union, this presents an ideological stumbling block at a point when nationalism and Islamophobia have found a foothold on an economically uncertain continent.

This could serve as an explanation for objections to Turkish accession in European countries that implement anti-Islamic policies under the garb of secularism while still upholding the EU as a white and Christian institution. As a result, Turkish accession may force European member states to confront issues of identity and conflicting ideology, while also tackling the rise of Islamophobia. Although European leaders have portrayed Turkey’s human rights record as the antithesis to European values, the country’s protracted accession also reveals how far the European Union has fallen short of enforcing those ideals. Consequently, writing Turkey off for EU membership means that member states will have to take a long hard look at how European identity and principles are defined.

[1] Full document available here: http://www.ab.gov.tr/files/000etkinlikler/2014/10/iletisim_stratejisi_eng_kapak_eklenmis.pdf


[3] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/09/turkey-mainstream-media-penguins-protests

[4] http://www.hrw.org/world-report/2014/country-chapters/turkey

[5] http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/sites/eng/pages/search.aspx?i=001-107206#{“itemid”:[“001-107206”]}

[6] http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-22754866

[7] http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/02/04/uk-turkey-germany-eu-idUKBREA130YZ20140204

[8]‘I want to be a friend to Turkey, but Turkey doesn’t belong in Europe, simply because it is in Asia Minor. ‘ Speech of M. Nicholas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic, Convention sur l’Europe, 2008