Written by Felice Valeria and Edited by Charlie Jones
Turkey has been eager to join the European Union (EU) since 1987, when it was still the European Economic Community (EEC). In 1995, Turkey was officially recognised as a candidate for full EU membership after it signed a Customs Union agreement with the EU and, subsequently, a series of accession negotiations have occurred since 2005. (European Commission, 2019). However, the progress of negotiations has been slow: as of June 2006 only 15 of 35 chapters of the European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiation acquis have been opened, with only one being closed (LSE, 2016). Since then, the accession process of Turkey to the EU has been slow, with the former still failing to meet many political and economic prerequisites to EU membership. Separate from the strict eligibility criteria, division between EU Member States on whether or not Turkey should join the EU has become a key obstacle in the accession process. Indeed, common agreements on the matter have not been reached due to diverging national interests. The need for unanimity when admitting new members makes reaching a common agreement essential and yet EU countries remain at odds on this issue. Many member states’ concern about Turkish accession relate to a certain understanding of the EU as a normative power dedicated to the values of liberal democracy and a questioning of Turkish elites’ dedication to them. This article will examine the causes of these normative differences and the extent to which they are disrupting Turkish accession to the EU.
THE LACK OF “EUROPEANISATION” IN TURKEY
The EU operates as a “normative power” insofar as it has attempted to regulate its internal functioning through specific ideational guidelines, which subsequently are promoted to the global stage. The values and ideas include the rule of law, democracy, and human rights (EU Neighbourseast, 2023). Throughout recent decades, the EU has consistently attempted to reinforce its normative power through the enforcement of the Copenhagen criteria to determine the eligibility of a country to acquire full membership in the EU through Europeanisation. The concept of Europeanisation, which highlights the impacts of European integration on domestic politics, such as shared norms and beliefs, policy paradigms, formal and informal rules, procedures, styles, and “ways of doing things” (Moumoutzis, 2011), is essential to understanding the phenomenon of European accession, as well as the acceleration of the EU’s normative influence. (Soyaltin, 2013). In an unprecedented move, between 1999-2004, the Turkish government enacted numerous constitutional democratic reform measures to fulfil the aforesaid Copenhagen criteria, including through some legislative and constitutional amendments, as well as the ratification of international instruments in the field of human rights (HRA, 2003). In light of these reforms, negotiations about potential Turkish accession began in 2005 but relations have since deteriorated, largely due to Turkey’s democratic backsliding (SCF, 2022).
In 2019, Turkey was charged with violations of freedom of expression due to the government’s constant human rights violations (European Court of Human Rights, 2019). Out of 68 judgments where the European Court of Human Rights has found a violation of freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights, 35 of them were filed by Turkish citizens. The declaration of the state of emergency and an attempted coup on 15 July 2016 led to the loss of civilian lives and further denial of rights; this has led to a low-point for EU perceptions of Turkish democracy (Cinar & Sirin, 2017).
Turkey’s non-compliance with the EU’s attempt at Europeanisation through the enforcement of democratic values and norms might be driven by the prevalence of Euroscepticism in the country. Government officials frequently stigmatise Europe for “‘being ruled by Islamophobic and anti-Turkish elites who wish to curb Turkey’s economic growth and political clout in its neighbourhood” (Buhari-Gülmez, 2018). Although Ottoman and Republican modernisers in the past aspired to make Turkey a part of ‘European’ society due to the strong association of modernity with the West, the authoritarian modernisation imposed by the Ottoman and Republican modernisers from around 1826 to 1877 considerably oppressed certain groups who opposed the idea of radical modernisation of Turkey (Kaliber, 2013). Hence, the current negative perception of Europeanisation may revolve around the fact that it has excluded a large segment of the population that advocates for the preservation of traditional values, such as the domestic conservatives who support Erdogan’s roots in political Islam. Despite previous issues with forced Western convergence, Turkey was initially keen on democratising, but more recently has backslid due to the contradictory values used to address numerous human rights’ issues in Turkey. For instance, as the authoritarian measures taken by the Turkish government during the failed coup attempt in 2016 led to heavy criticism from the EU, the EU was deemed by a large portion of Turkish society to be disrespecting Turkish domestic policy. The idea of an ‘oppressive’ imposition of values by Europe has likely led to a diminishment of the respect for the values in question among European society. This being the case, the continuation of Turkey’s democratic backsliding as a possible manifestation of its distrust to the EU and its values may further prolong the process of its accession negotiations to the EU.
THE CONFLICTING VALUES BETWEEN TURKEY AND THE EU
As a Muslim-majority country, some member states may be increasingly weary of granting Turkey EU membership as they face increasing Islamophobia in their own societies, which could generate major political backlash at Turkey’s accession (Bayrakli, 2018). According to a survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (ENAR), 1 in 3 Muslims in Europe stated that they had experienced discrimination throughout 2022 (ENAR, 2022). Turkey’s foreign policy itself increasingly highlights the importance of Islamic identity (Dalay, 2018); this is likely motivated by a perceived need for Islamic solidarity amidst a Western-dominataed world order, as well as pervasive anti-Muslim rhetoric (Tabak, 2017). This attempt aims to oppose religio-cultural practices of Ottoman and Turkish Islam against the expansion of extremist religious streams, whilst also aims to foster solidarity with the deprived and conflicting Muslim countries and communities (Tabak, 2017).
The EU’s perceived success of being a normative power has made the issue of cultural compatibility paramount to decisions about Turkey’s potential membership. The EU, as a normative power, has to serve as a role-model for non-EU states in terms of compliance to shared norms and values, especially due to the institution’s pledge on the protection of and respect for minorities. According to Huntington (1996), cultural values and norms are crucial in maintaining the effectiveness and sustainability of any form of regional cooperation due to the feelings of mutual trust that are fostered through cooperation. Hence, in this case, Turkey’s full membership within the EU, without meaningful changes to Turkey’s domestic politics, would raise questions about the EU’s credibility as a global normative power whilst creating internal discord, particularly if islamophobia continues to be prevalent among some member states.
According to Manners (2009), the evolving influence of the power of ideas in world politics has contributed to the increasing significance of normative power as a cornerstone of the EU’s global importance. The process of Europeanisation itself has taken place as an embodiment of EU’s soft power, where the internalisation of European values and norms are continuously reinforced among the regional community. Nonetheless, the failure of Turkey’s accession negotiations have likely contributed to the inability of Turkey to fully Europeanise its governmental and societal practices, due to the rise of Euroscepticism, alongside cultural incompatibility and the unprecedented rise of Islamophobia in the EU caused by political elites who want to preserve their power. While Turkey and the EU has been involved in close cooperation through the Customs Union agreement, which focuses solely on economic interaction, the EU’s fear of eroding its credibility as a global normative power, has largely driven the member states’ hesitancy in approving Turkey’s desire for full EU membership.
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