Turkey has been negotiating its potential European Union (EU) membership since 2005, however there is a longer history to the relationship given that the accession process began in 1959. A Turkey that is a member of the EU now seems further away than ever as only 16 out of the 35 negotiation chapters have been opened, with a single one being completed and another one closed. The chapters cover a range of policy areas such as transport, energy and fisheries. Each chapter is negotiated separately and requires ratification by current and aspiring EU member states. Many negotiation chapters have been vetoed with the issue over Cyprus being a popular pretext. Since the defeated coup in 2016, a number of new chapters have been opened, but while negotiation is still technically underway, in reality it is frozen.
Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, Head of the EU Delegation to Turkey, said during a summit earlier this year that “Nobody puts in question the candidate status of Turkey.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a statement in January that Turkey’s future lies in Europe. So why is it that Turkey is still not a member of the EU? One of the biggest factors preventing Turkey’s accession to the EU is its failure to meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which states that countries wishing to join the EU must guarantee democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. It further calls for a functioning and competitive market-economy and effective adherence to all membership obligations. Such requirements are typically prerequisites to the stage in which chapters are negotiated, which shows how Turkey has regressed on many matters. This has led to those such as European People’s Party (EPP) leader Manfred Webber to state that “Turkey cannot be a member of the European Union,” instead a “special way of partnership of good neighbourhood” is necessary.
This approach is understandable given Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies. Since the failed coup in 2016 and the following 2017 constitutional referendum that resulted in a new executive presidential system, Turkey has become less democratic and increasingly unstable. In turn, Turkey’s progress towards the Copenhagen Criteria has only regressed. Under Erdoğan, there has been crackdowns on political opposition and media, as well as economic instability. Until recently, President Erdoğan’s son-in law Berat Albayrak was the Finance Minister of Turkey who oversaw the Turkish Lira loose 46% of its dollar value. Furthermore, many EU members remain concerned with Turkey’s human rights record, especially in regard to the Kurdish people and Turkey’s secular status. The Diyanet, Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, has seemed to endorse readings of Islam that are at odds with Turkish laws.
Despite these shortcomings, the EU must demonstrate continued patience and cooperation with Turkey. Turkey remains strategically important for security reasons given its geopolitical position in relation to the Middle-East. Turkey also houses the most refugees in the world, with over 4 million Syrian refugees present in Turkey. The EU continues to cooperate with Turkey regarding refugees, but Eastern Mediterranean regional politics is the most immediate factor in preventing further cooperation. The two principal issues here lie with the maritime disputes between Turkey and Greece and the internationally-unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Both are complex issues with long histories and it is important that they be managed in a way that protects Turkish-EU relations. This will prevent Turkey from turning to illiberal powers such as Russia and China for support. There have already been some early indications of this shift given that Erdoğan has held more face-to-face meetings with Putin than with any other leader since 2016.
It seems that Turkish foreign policy faces three possible scenarios: aligning with the EU, cutting ties with the EU and aligning with Russia, or further partial EU integration. It could also progress further than just a Customs Union relationship by joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), thereby fostering a relationship with the EU closer in form to that of Iceland and Norway. However, this final option is a long way off given the various circumstances at hand.