Turkey and the European Union: One Step Closer

Turkish parliament session

The Turkish Parliament in session on Sept. 26, 2004. (Photo: Tarik Tinazay/AFP-Getty Images)

Turkey came one step closer to its goal of European Union membership after Gunter Verheugen, the European Union’s commissioner for enlargement, announced that there were no more obstacles to opening negotiations on accession. The news came after urgent talks between Verheugen and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Turkish penal code reforms. The adoption of the reform package had been stalled after a clause criminalizing adultery provoked criticism from Brussels and pro-reformists in Turkey. Erdogan’s assurances that he will go ahead with reforms and drop the controversial clause, which he originally backed, put an end to the crisis that threatened to jeopardize Turkish membership aspirations.

In a special session, the Turkish Parliament voted overwhelmingly to pass the reforms that will bring Turkish criminal law up to European Union standards.

On Oct. 6 the European Commission is to deliver a report on Turkey’s readiness to begin accession talks. Consulting the Commission’s recommendations, European Union leaders from the 25 member states will have the final say on Dec. 17, when they vote on whether to open negotiations with Turkey.

After coming to power in 2002, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has undertaken sweeping reforms to bring Turkey closer to European standards, including crucial issues such as minority and civil rights. Turkey’s European Union bid has gathered support among member states and is also backed by the United States. However, there remains a great deal of skepticism among politicians and the European public is deeply divided on the issue of Turkey’s entry. While some officials have expressed doubts about the ability of Turkey to meet political and economic criteria or questioned its true commitment to human rights, there are others who have addressed the less spoken fear of allowing a country with a large Muslim population into the European Union. If admitted, Turkey will be the second-largest country after Germany in the European Union, and, under the current arrangements, will enjoy significant political power in the Union’s institutions. Turkey’s size and relative poverty present significant challenges to the institutional setup and the budget of the European Union.

Among current members, opposition to Turkey’s entry is strong in some key member states. French President Jacques Chirac has spoken favorably of Turkish membership, but his party, the governing conservative Union for a Popular Movement, is strongly opposed. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in a recent interview for the Wall Street Journal asked, “Do we want the river of Islam to enter the riverbed of secularism?” But he also added, “We don't think we should tell Turkey that the doors of Europe are forever closed to it.” Austrian President Heinz Fischer has said that the European Union is not ready to accept Turkey at the moment, and that it needs more time to assimilate the ten newest members. In Germany, Turkey was at the center of a domestic political debate between Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s governing coalition and opposition Christian Democrats who have proposed the idea of “privileged partnership” instead of full membership. German opposition leaders have stressed that their proposal is based on a concern about a possible “overstretch” of European Union institutions, and not religious or cultural grounds. The Vatican, on the other hand, while not a member of the European Union, is concerned with preserving Europe’s Christian heritage and has recently questioned Turkey’s entry into the union.

Supporters say that Turkey’s size and rapidly growing economy will boost economic growth and add a young workforce to an aging Europe. For many, the success of the European Union-inspired reforms in Turkey will serve as a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalism and as an example to other Muslim nations. As a secular Muslim country straddling Europe and the Middle East, Turkey is also strategically important. Denying Turkey, a member of NATO, the opportunity to start talks after its hard work on meeting European Union demands could also damage the credibility of the union. Commission president designate Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, who supports Turkey’s entry as long as it fulfills the criteria, said recently “if Turkey responded positively to the E.U.’s demands, I don’t see how we could say no.” Among those backing Turkey's entry are Britain and Italy.

Turkey applied for an associate membership back in 1959 shortly after the establishment of the European Economic Community, and, in 1963, signed an agreement that included the possibility for future membership. It applied for full membership in 1987 but was not given official candidate status until 1999. If given the green light on talks, Turkey will still face a long road to full entry, which would probably not occur earlier than 2015.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Zornitsa Stoyanova-Yerburgh.