When will Turkey join the European Union (EU)?

  Date posted: 4th of December 2014

As Turkish premier Mr. Erdogan cited during a recent state visit to Germany in October 2012, no country has ever waited as long as Turkey has to join the European Union as a full member.  The EU has not rejected Turkey’s bid for full membership, neither has it shown clear indications that full membership is indeed something Turkey could look forward to in the near future.  Each seemingly positive step toward the accession, taken by Turkey or the EU, seem to be counter-acted by issues presented as obstacles by member states, whose unanimous agreement will be needed before Turkey could possibly be granted full EU membership.  Amongst the obstacles presented is the unresolved Cyprus problem, Turkey’s so called human-rights record, trade reforms and the list goes on.

In Turkey itself, support for the EU is fast diminishing as Turks begin to see that their best interests may not necessarily line up with debt-ridden EU - Greece, Spain and Portugal facing major financial crises.  Furthermore, increasing trade relations with the Middle East, Russia and Asian countries are naturally making most Turks reconsider their position in a world, where Turkey is fast becoming a regional superb-power.  Should we ever join the EU, do we really need Europe or will it soon need Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. 

The start of Turkey’s European Union accession process and customs union with the EU

Turkey is an associate member of the EU since 1963 following Ankara agreement between the Republic of Turkey and the European Economic Community (the EEC) aimed at starting the process of accession of Turkey into the EEC.  

The agreement foresaw a three step process that would start with customs union of Turkey with the EEC, which would then lead to Turkey’s full accession to the EEC.  The customs union was the starting point of economic and trade integration of Turkey into the EEC.  Certain trade tariff quotas were applied for Turkish exports to the EEC with a view to harmonising trade and movement of workers/services in time.  This period proved less fruitful than expected.

Turkey signed a Customs Union Agreement with the EU in 1995 and on 12 December 1999, Turkey was recognised as an official candidate for EU accession.  Customs Union Agreement meant that manufactured goods could flow between the EU and Turkey without customs restrictions; however, it excluded agricultural products, services or public procurement matters.  In 1996, a free trade zone was created between Turkey and the EU for products governed by the European coal and steel community.   There is in existence a common external tariff that both Turkey and EU need to comply with, which regulates the trade of goods subject to customs union, with countries outside the union, by applying certain restrictions, quotas and similar trade regulations in an attempt to protect the industries subject to the customs union between the EU and Turkey.  In addition, Turkey is expected to comply with the ‘acquis communautaire’ of the EU, particularly in relation to industrial standards, meaning Turkey has to abide by the laws, legislations and court rulings of the European Union with regards goods regulated by the customs union.

A poisoned chalice or a generous concession – closer looks at Turkey’s customs union with the EU?  

In 2012, more than 40% of Turkey’s exports were to EU countries.  In 2011, Turkey – EU trade totalled Euro 120 billion, with EU’s imports from Turkey amounting to Euro 47.6m and its exports to Turkey reaching Euro 72.6m.  Nearly 30% of all EU exports to Turkey are made up of manufactured goods such as machinery, mechanical and electrical appliances.  Turkey is EU’s sixth biggest trade partner and EU is Turkey’s largest. 

Since joining the customs union, Turkey’s trade deficit with the EU has been increasing.  The fact that Turkey’s main imports from the EU are manufactured goods, regulated within customs union, means Turkey imports a great deal more from the EU countries than it exports to them for agricultural produce are not within customs union.  In addition, some of Turkey’s exports to the EU countries are resold to Turkey as premium manufactured items.  In other words, it can be argued that custom union has in fact helped boost EU exports to Turkey and prevented Turkey from accessing cheaper manufactured goods markets as opposed to help strengthen Turkey’s position in terms of industrial and economic growth in line with the EU.  

To make matters worse, the trade laws and regulations of the EU that Turkey agrees to abide by can’t be influenced or shaped in any way by Turkey because Turkey has no political representation within the EU and is no party to any of the decisions that directly affect its trade with the EU and to a great extend with countries outside the EU.   To make matters worse, customs union with the EU means that Turkey also has to abide by all trade laws and regulations of the EU with regards trade affairs of the union (and Turkey for customs union) with non-EU countries.  This simply means the EU can dictate terms to Turkey on what tariffs and regulations to apply on its trade relations with non EU countries on manufactured goods, thus affecting Turkey’s trade relations with such countries.   

In conclusion, customs union with the EU has indeed opened the Turkish market to European goods flowing freely into Turkey, however, has not done as much in terms of developing and boosting Turkish exports of manufactured products.  Turkish domestic products are still finding it difficult to compete in a European market, which prescribes what standards should and should not be applied to its imported goods, decisions over which Turkey has no say. 

Turkey’s EU application, where is it heading?

Turkey’s membership bid to the European Union has always been a major point of controversy in European Union’s enlargement plans since Turkey submitted its application for full membership on 14 April 1987.  It took The European Commission two and a half years to respond, only to advise Turkey that the application considerations would be postponed to a future date due to Turkey’s economic and political circumstances as well as its poor relations with EU member Greece, coupled with the unresolved Cyprus issue.   

In 1997, European Union accession talks commenced with eastern European countries, central European nations and Republic of Cyprus, represented by the Cyprus Greek administration.  Turkey was side-lined.  After Turkey’s customs union in 1995, the European Council in Helsinki recognised Turkey in 1999 as an official candidate with equal standing as other potential candidates.

On 3 October 2005, negotiations between Turkey and the EU officially started for Turkey’s accession to the full membership of the union following The European Council’s decision that Turkey fulfilled the Copenhagen political criteria. Initially Austria and Germany objected to the commencement of talks for full membership suggesting a privileged partnership status instead of full membership, however, that was subsequently overruled.  Since then France and Austria suggested that they wanted to hold a referendum on Turkey’s full membership.  A change in French Constitution was made to hold such a referendum, however, a subsequent change later prevented a referendum.  In March 2007, critical problems over the Cyprus issue and a slow-down in Turkish reforms were cited amongst the reasons for a freeze in talks over 8 of the 35 key points of negotiations (chapters) between the EU and Turkey.      

In October 2012, during a state visit to Germany, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stated that Turkey expected admission to full membership latest by 2023 and that they would seriously consider ceasing all negotiations with the EU if full membership was not granted.  German Chancellor, Ms. Merkel stated that despite certain disagreements over the way negotiations were going, the EU wanted to continue membership talks with Turkey and that both the EU and Germany were committed to Turkey’s full membership negotiations.  

The all important chapters that Turkey needs to satisfy before it can be a full EU member

Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU revolve around successful completion of 35 chapters of the EU law with the European Commission.  Only upon completion of these chapters and unanimous agreement by all EU members can Turkey be granted full membership to the European Union.  So, what are these chapters that stand as obstacles in front of Turkey’s EU accession?  These chapters cover all social, political and trade matters between Turkey and the EU ranging from free movement of goods to foreign & security defence policy, financial and budgetary provisions.  So far negotiations have started on most of these chapters and expect for science & research, none have been closed (satisfactorily concluded). 

Current state of affairs for 35 chapters is as follows

-       16 further efforts needed

-       13 generally aligned with EU law

-       2 considerable efforts needed (freedom of movement of workers and environment chapters)

-       1 alignment at early stage

-       1 alignment complete

-       2 nothing to adopt

Chapters that are blocked or can’t proceed to next stage
8 were frozen due to Turkey not opening its ports and airports to Cyprus traffic
6 are blocked by Cyprus.
3 are blocked by France, including chapter on economic and monetary policy.

Overall, progress on the chapters seems to be hindered by issues over Cyprus problem and French reluctance to proceed on economic and monetary policy matters. 

Opposing views regarding Turkey’s accession within Europe
The issue of Turkey’s accession to the EU has become a much discussed subject within member states and stands to define the future of EU from social, political and geographical viewpoints.  Members that support EU as a free trade and commercial zone as opposed to a political unity seem to be in favour of Turkey’s membership.  In sharp contrast, those members that see the EU as a political formation tend to have opposing views to Turkey’s accession. 

Those in support of Turkey’s full membership hold that Turkey is a major geographical power with NATO’s second largest army, strong economy and solid ties to the Middle East and surrounding resource rich countries.  As such, they are of the opinion that accepting Turkey as a full member of the EU will only improve EU’s economic and strategic standing in the global markets. One of Turkey’s key supporters for full membership is the UK.  Upon joining the EU, with a population over 70 million, Turkey would have the highest number of MEPs in the European Parliament after Germany.  Demographic statistics and Turkey’s growth rate shows that this number would surpass Germany by 2020, making Turkey the largest single influence within the EU.

France on the other hand maintains that accepting Turkey in the EU would mean redefining the political and geographic boundaries of Europe and would encourage Northern African states such as Morocco to apply for membership too.   Previous French president Nicolas Sarkozy, a fierce opponent of Turkey’s membership, had stated in 2007 that enlarging the EU with no regard to geographic and political boundaries was simply not acceptable.  He went further to say that Turkey had no place in Europe.   

There are clearly strong negative sentiments amongst certain member states of Turkey joining the EU, France leading this block.  It could be argued that France, amongst other reasons, would not wish a UK & US friendly Turkey to join the EU further diluting their sphere of influence within the EU and globally.  To make matters worse for France, Turkey’s strong agriculture could mean some of French agricultural exports and subsidies would be reduced in favour of Turkey.  In addition, France may fear that its already poorly integrated Muslim population may further increase, should Turkey be admitted into the EU.     

An opinion poll conducted in December 2011 resulted in 71% of the participants in Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK being opposed to Turkey's accession to the EU.  Given that accession needs to be unanimously agreed by all member states may very well make it difficult for member state governments to support it with the majority of their citizens seemingly not in favour of it.  

What does Turkey stand to benefit from EU membership?

Turkey is one of the world’s leading agricultural producers, has a very strong textile industry, manufactures and exports motor vehicles, ships, construction materials, consumer electronics and domestic appliances.  According to US based Engineering News- Record (ENR), Turkish construction and contracting companies rank second in the world behind those of China in terms of projects undertaken globally.  Turkey has a thriving real estate sector that alongside other sectors such as energy, hospitality and banking, attracts significant foreign direct investment from non EU and EU countries.    

As of 2012, Turkey’s top trade partners are Germany, Russia and Iran.  The country has the 15th largest GDP in the world, larger than 22 out of 27 EU member countries. 

Upon joining the EU, Turkey stands to receive economic development subsidies from the EU similar to those received by Greece, Spain and Portugal.  It is also expected that foreign direct investment from the EU countries will increase further boosting economic development in Turkey.  Due to its ties with the Middle East and Central Asian countries, an EU member Turkey could in theory further bolster trade and cultural relations between these countries and the EU members with Turkey acting as the hub, where East meets West

Public opinion in Turkey re EU membership

When official talks started for full membership, public opinion in Turkey was predominantly pro EU.  With the French and Austrian call for referendum, which Turks saw as EU’s way of further delaying the process, public support for EU membership was tarnished.  As time went on and accession chapters were blocked by the French and Cyprus governments, Turkish public opinion was further reduced.

As of 2012, over 50% of Turks no longer support EU membership; at the best they are indifferent.  They believe that Turkey’s national interests would be best served by establishing further business and cultural relations with Asian and Middle Eastern nations.  Less than 45% believe that EU accession would be beneficial for Turkish economy.   

Conclusion – will Turkey ever join the EU?

The official EU accession talks that started in October 2005 are expected to last minimum 10 years.  This will take Turkey well into 2015 before it could realistically close all 35 chapters of the EU law and also enjoyed a unanimous decision in favour of its membership from all 27 member states, possibly 28 by then with the prior inclusion of Croatia.   

Closing all 35 chapters by 2015 is not a realistic expectation given that only 1 out of 35 have so far been satisfactorily concluded.  Therefore, we then have Mr. Erdogan’s solid statement to fall back on that should the EU not accept Turkey by 2023, then Turkey will possibly withdraw from accession talks.   The question is - with the aging European population and diminishing productivity – will the tables turn in 10 years time so much so that the EU will call on Turkey to politely accept its full membership invitation?  This remains to be seen, however, one thing is for sure that every passing day Turkey is forging new relations outside the EU and moving from strength to strength. 

Will Turkey really benefit from full EU membership in years to come?