Written By Pierfrancesco Maria Lanza (EST Ambassador to Italy, Reggio Calabria)
Since its foundation, the European Union has been a light of peace and rights for European countries. Born from the ashes of the Second World War, precisely with the aim of guaranteeing peace and prosperity in Europe, the EU has allowed many European states to be able to take part in this project. In fact, through the process of enlargement, it has integrated many other countries like Romania, Bulgaria or Croatia, allowing them to reap the benefits of membership. As a result of enlargement, the European Union has expanded: starting from 6 countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and former West Germany), and reaching the current 27. Due to the possibility of joining, Turkey has taken this as an opportunity to seek membership status, because of the added value of membership, such as the EU single market for instance. However, the problem stems from the fact that Turkey’s relations with the EU have not always been and are still not so positive.
Joining the Union requires a process aimed at verifying the possession of some very important requirements by the candidate state. Indeed, any European country that respects the values of the EU and is committed to promoting them can apply to become a member. As stated in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), these values include:
Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail. (The European Union, 1992)
For this reason, each interested country must meet some practical membership criteria that establish certain democratic, economic and political conditions. States must respect the guaranteeing of democracy, the rule of law, human and minority rights, have stable institutions, a market economy capable of dealing with competition and the ability of the potential Member State to comply with EU law. These are all the common rules and policies of the European Union – the so-called acquis communautaire.
The accession process, governed by Art. 49 of the TEU, provides three phases and each of them must be approved by all the EU Members. First, the Union offers the prospect of accession to the concerned country, then it becomes an official candidate and finally it is invited to participate in official negotiations in order to take the necessary reforms to become a full member. Once the negotiations and reforms have been completed, the country in question can enter the EU, being subjected to agreement from all existing Member States.
In regard to Turkey, its relations with the European Union started in 1959, and in 1963 it signed the Ankara Association Agreement, a document which included some reforms and the implementation of a customs union. Then it applied in 1987 to join the past European Economic Community and was declared eligible to join the EU in 1997. The official negotiations started in 2005, but they temporarily stopped because Turkey had not agreed to apply an Additional Protocol of the Ankara Association Agreement to Cyprus, with which Turkey is not in good relations with. From that point onwards, negotiations continued with difficulties and there is a long discussion about whether to allow Turkey to reopen negotiations with the EU.
Indeed, Turkey plays a significant role for the European Union; it is a member of NATO, as many EU countries, and is a strategic player in the Middle East in regard to migration, trade and the fight against terrorism. Although from 2003 onwards, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has implemented important reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty, Turkey’s in compliance with the EU policy on human rights in recent years regarding the respect for human rights and the rule of law has led to effective freezing of negotiations.
Firstly, EU-Turkey relations began to deteriorate after the failed coup d’état of 2016. On that occasion, a group of soldiers tried to depose President Erdogan by occupying some key points of the major cities. However, the coup failed and was controversially attributed to Erdogan’s political opponent, Fetullah Gulem, who lives in the United States. Arrests and purges followed, which affected thousands of soldiers, magistrates and civil servants: an estimated 9,000 Turkish citizens (BBC, 2016). The major consequence was the elimination of some fundamental rights after the proclamation of the state of emergency. Turkey, in fact, announced the temporary suspension of the ‘European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms’, which guarantees the respect of many rights for citizens of European countries (Ibid.). The Turkish government imposed a ban on expatriation and the abolition of holidays for all public employees, and asked for the resignation of 1,577 rectors, 1,176 managers of public universities and 21,000 teachers of private schools, as reported by the BBC (2016).
Additionally, arrests of journalists and the closure of many newspapers followed – a serious blow to the freedom of the press. As a result, in November 2016 the European Parliament approved a resolution asking for a temporary freeze on EU accession talks with Turkey until it mitigates the repressive measures deemed too disproportionate. Moreover, faced with the possibility that Turkey might reintroduce the death penalty, which is expressly injurious to the rule of law, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have threatened a formal suspension of the accession process altogether.
Secondly, another controversial topic that contributes to the declining relationship between the EU and Turkey is the relationship between Turkey and Cyprus, an EU Member State populated by an ethnic Greek majority and a Turkish minority. The hostility between the two countries dates back to 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern part of the island in favour of the Turkish ethnic group, after a coup d’état by the Greek-Cypriot population, backed by Greece. Cyprus has, in fact, been divided into two parts for many years: the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey. This division is still present nowadays and has represented a huge obstacle for Turkey in joining the EU. The latest emblematic episode occurred in November 2019, when Ankara intensified drilling (which began in June) in search of hydrocarbons in the waters of Cyprus, claiming that some of the areas where Cyprus is are under its sovereignty or in zones where Turkish Cypriots have rights. Stating instead that sovereignty belongs to the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, the European Union has ordered Turkey to withdraw, also preparing a package of economic sanctions. As a response, the Turkish president stated that “you may take this lightly, but these doors to Europe will open and these Daesh (Islamic State) members will be sent to you. Do not try to threaten Turkey over developments in Cyprus” (Erdogan, 2019), by this threat further exacerbating his relationship with EU leadership. Additionally, Turkey also had a dispute with Greece over a separate maritime accord with Libya, which Athens considers illegal as it relates to the portions of sea recognized as Greece’s property.
Moreover, the biggest and most difficult issue, which has been affecting relations between the European Union and Turkey for many years, is the issue of immigration. The Syrian civil war and the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq have caused, since their beginning, a huge number of internally displaced persons and asylum seekers, who have tried to reach Europe through Turkey and the Balkan route from 2011 to 2016. The European Union has been immediately divided on a common migration policy, also due to the inefficiencies of the related 3rd Dublin Regulation, which required the first Member State to which the migrants arrived to assist them and analyze their asylum requests, which factually put most of the difficulties on border States, such as Greece in this case. Due to this and also the refusal of the other Member States to redistribute migrants, such as Hungary, which built a wall along its borders on the Balkan route, Ankara has proven to be a strategic partner for crisis management. Indeed, in March 2016, the European Union and the Turkish government signed an agreement to stop irregular migration from Turkey to the EU. It has been decided that all migrants who have reached Greece irregularly should be sent back to Turkey to then apply for asylum in Greece from within Turkish territory, and that for every Syrian refugee sent back, another, registered on a list, giving priority to women and children, will be transferred to the EU through humanitarian channels. Additionally, the agreement has provided for the total payment of 6 billion euros in projects directed to manage the refugee camps on its territory and the promise to abolish visas for Turkish citizens who want to enter the EU, as well as the promise of resuming ascension talks. However, the agreement has proved to be full of obstacles and inefficiencies that have contributed to the deterioration of the relationship. Although migration flows have stopped, until September 2019 only 12,489 of the 3,670,000 Syrian refugees from Turkish camps have been transferred to Europe and just as few have been repatriated to Turkey. Moreover, the abolition of visas and the acceleration of the accession process has been stalled because Turkey has not complied with some requests from Brussels, which include a greater effort in the fight against Islamic terrorism, a reform in the justice system and respect for human rights and civil liberties. As we can understand, this has provoked Turkey’s criticism of the Union, accusing the EU of not sharing the burden of the migrant issue fairly.
Nevertheless, the problems do not end there. The Syrian government’s offensives against the rebels have generated a further influx of 3 million displaced persons to Turkey. In the meantime, in October 2019, Turkey invaded northern Syria to fight the Syrian Kurds – the allied fighters of the western coalition who reported important victories against ISIS – and create a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. The operation is part of the Turkish government’s desire to destroy the Kurdish minority, also present on its territory, and to prevent a union between the Syrian Kurds and the Turkish Kurds. In fact, the Turkish Kurds, who also have their own political party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), have long been the target of Ankara because of their autonomist pressures and suffered persecution aimed at cancelling their identity. Furthermore, Turkey has been accused many times of not respecting the fundamental rights of this minority. Due to this, a sort of war has arisen between Turkey and the Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish paramilitary organization that fights for the independence of the Kurds from Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by both the European Union and the United States. The Turkish invasion of Syria has been another occasion for discord between the EU and Turkey, and as a consequence, the Council of the European Union, through recalling the “Declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU on recent developments in north-east Syria”, has condemned the attack and called for the withdrawal of troops, while some Member States, such as Germany, Italy and France have stopped their weapons trade with Turkey. As a consequence, Turkey responded by accusing the EU of supporting people considered to be terrorists and has threatened to open doors to Europe for migrants. This threat eventually has become a reality: at the end of February 2020, following further unfavourable clashes in Syria for the Turks, once again not supported by the Union, Ankara has allowed thousands of migrants to cross the border with Greece, making it clear that it is no longer able to contain them all and inviting the EU to welcome them by respecting common human rights. President Erdogan again has accused the EU of not respecting the agreements and of not supporting Turkey that has declared to have spent 40 billion euros to resolve the emergency. For these reasons, this last episode has provoked harsh reactions from the Union, which risks returning to the disastrous situation of 2016. “Those who seek to test Europe’s unity will be disappointed. We will hold the line and our unity will prevail” (von der Leyen, 2020) thundered the President of the European Commission as the Greek government responded by reinforcing its borders, asking for EU support and rejecting the migrants in Turkey, which has caused some frictions with the Turkish police.
Consequently, relations between the European Union and Turkey have continued to deteriorate and many people and politicians continue to ask whether Turkish membership in the Union has finally been prevented. Maybe it could be the definitive sunset of the possibility for Turkey to join the EU. Indeed, this latest episode has once again demonstrated the presence of many differences between this country and the other Member States. In fact, given that Turkey aspires to affirm its role as a regional power in the Middle East and given its ineptitude in respecting human and minority rights, it is not desirable for current EU states, which have renounced some of their national interests in favour of joining such an ambitious project, to allow Turkey in. Moreover, due to its Ottoman settled past and its different culture, Turkey is often not even considered to be a European country in the first place, therefore its joining could also cause an identity dilemma for the EU. A solution could be to conclude individual agreements in specific sectors, like tariff-free access for all the goods, as some MEPs have proposed instead of a full EU membership. As reported by the European Parliament: “the EU usually asks for reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country as well as make its economy more robust. In turn the country might benefit from financial or technical assistance” (The European Parliament, last update 2020).
In conclusion, it can be said that the EU project of peace and wealth constitutes a model for the rest of the European countries, and the accession of new countries to the Union can only be viewed positively by the supporters of European integration as a sign of willingness to contribute to what this international organization has represented for many years. However, as the experience of the changing nature of EU-Turkey relations teaches, all sides must act by respecting one another and be able to put aside unnecessary pride to achieve unity and respect. There cannot be space for tremendous selfishness that, as the issue with Turkey teaches to both sides, has only a destructive effect.
– The European Union, (1992), “Treaty on European Union” artt. n. 2 and 49, pp. 5 and 31
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