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This study examines the history and politics of Turkey-EU relations since 1959, exploring the complex interaction of geostrategic and normative concerns which have resulted in the current lack of accession progress and Turkey's slide to authoritarianism.




Turkey is the longest standing “wannabe” member of what is now the European Union (EU). It made its first tentative moves towards Brussels in 1959 just a year after the European Economic Community (EEC) came into being. More than 50 years later, Turkey is still waiting and in many ways is as far away from membership as it ever was. The only time it has made any real progress in accession was between 2002 and 2004, when the decision to open accession negotiations was taken.
Natalie Martin

1. The Cold War Effect

Turkey’s application to join “Europe”1 was made in 1959, just two weeks after that of Greece. Ankara’s European quest predates all the countries now firmly ensconced into the institution — including the UK — and yet its own prospects of membership remain remote. This chapter addresses the issue of how and why Turkey was included in the European process in the first place, and why it has languished for so long waiting for accession to happen. It argues that both can be understood if Turkey’s initial inclusion within “Europe” is viewed as an unintended consequence, and artificial construct, of the Cold War.2 Geostrategic considerations after World War II meant that the evolving European integration project saw Turkey as “European” because it was part of “Western” security and integration institutions rather than any integral European nature. Underlying concerns of the member states about Turkey’s religion, culture, demographics and economics were suppressed at that time partly by the geostrategic imperative and partly by the long-term nature of the project.
Natalie Martin

2. The Kosovo Effect

The Cold War kick-started the Turkey-EU accession process. It defined Turkey as “European” because it had fallen into the “western” camp at the end of World War II and thereby confirmed its theoretical eligibility to be a member of the European project. This meshed neatly with the long-standing European civilizational quest which Turkey had embarked on under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk but which can be traced back to the Tanzimat and the Young Turks. However, whilst this geostrategic imperative was enough to open the door to Brussels for Turkey it was not enough to push it through.
Natalie Martin

3. The Helsinki Effect

The Cold War highlighted the geostrategic value of Turkey and procured its inclusion in the post-World War II Western security conglomeration. This was enough for it to be seen as “European” when this was synonymous with “Western” and therefore eligible to, one day, join the EEC. Thus, the Turkish case was made by its geostrategic value and it is unlikely that the accession agreement would have been signed without it. However, thereafter, Turkey failed to make the crucial distinction between the evolving EU and NATO. Whilst one institution — NATO — was unconcerned by its normative failings, the EU came to base its core identity and even raison d’être on high standards of democracy and human rights, which Turkey did not live up to. This gave the opponents of Turkish EU accession, including Greece and Cyprus, plentiful reasons to keep it at arm’s length. So, a misunderstanding of the norms by Ankara coupled with a lack of reforms and the Cyprus issue meant Turkey continued to languish at the back of an ever-lengthening queue for accession — with little prospect of making any progress.
Natalie Martin

4. The UK Effect

If the Kosovo effect was to push the Turkish case forward to candidacy by restating its geostrategic value first established after World War II, then the Helsinki effect took it further and began to encourage the kind of reform in Turkey which would ultimately enable its accession process to move forward. It also encouraged Turkey’s advocates within the EU to work towards solving the geostrategic issues surrounding the Turkish case, and the nor-matively opposed member states to be more pragmatic in their approach and to accept potential for reform as well as actual reform record. For these reasons the Copenhagen European Council in 2002 agreed not to dismiss the Turkish case but instead to throw forward the decision on opening accession negotiations with Turkey by two years, subject to a recommendation by the European Commission based on the Copenhagen criteria.
Natalie Martin

5. The Cyprus Effect

The period from 2002 to 2004 was a triumph for UK diplomacy and the political will of the AKP to change the course of Turkish politics. A substantial chunk of reform was implemented which enabled Turkey’s advocates within the EU to argue its case at Brussels in December 2004 — and rhetorically entrap its opponents. They had capitalized on the geostrategic imperatives which drove the enlargement case for eastern Europe and Turkey from 1997, which meant that at that time “there was a massive enthusiasm for enlargement and a willingness to see the glass as half full whereas it is now half empty”.1
Natalie Martin

6. The Arab Spring Effect

The “Arab Spring effect” was the change in international circumstances which reminded the EU that it could not allow the Turkish case for accession to fester in the post-2005 doldrums forever. It explains why the EU has persevered with the Turkish case since 2010/2011 in spite of a lack of real reform in Turkey and the deteriorating state of its democracy. This continues the overarching theory of the Turkey-EU accession process that geostrategy has played a major part in maintaining Turkey’s place within the accession process, although real progress has only been made when there was evidence of meaningful constitutional reform.
Natalie Martin

7. The Erdoğan Effect

It has been argued that a side effect of the Arab Spring has been to align the international political constellation once more in favour of Turkish accession. The series of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have reiterated Ankara’s geostrategic importance to the wider European continent — particularly as the initial optimism has turned to concern, and Egypt, Libya and Syria teeter on the brink of varying degrees of chaos for much of the time. Hence, it has been argued, that the EU, with backing from Washington, has been forced to reconsider its actions vis-à-vis Turkey in order to procure Ankara’s continuing cooperation to deal with these numerous uncertain scenarios — particularly Syria. Accordingly, it has tried to maintain momentum in negotiations with the Positive Agenda and was muted in its criticism of the Turkish government following the Gezi protests.
Natalie Martin

8. Conclusion

So finally, norms, reforms and the Cyprus issue have all played a large part in the Turkey-EU accession story since 1959. The EU’s normative identity developed after Turkey became technically eligible to be a candidate and Ankara was very slow to realize the significance of the normative criteria embodied first by the Birkelbach Report and then by the Copenhagen criteria. As a result, it languished in accession doldrums for several decades sustained only by its geostrategic value in the Cold War. Turkey was then pushed further into Europe by the consequences of the end of the Cold War but only made progress because of the reforms which had been implemented by 2004. Geostrategy, then, has created opportunities for Turkey in its European quest, but it is only normative reform which has resulted in real, actual, accession progress. The norms and reforms are vital.
Natalie Martin


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