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Turkey’s EU Bid

Author: Esther Pan
September 30, 2005

What is the status of Turkey’s attempt to join the European Union (EU)?

Accession talks between Turkey and the EU are scheduled to begin Monday, October 3. However, last-minute opposition by Austria may prevent the unanimous vote of EU members required for negotiations to begin. Turkey has been trying to get closer to Europe since 1959, when it applied to join what was then the European Economic Community. But many Europeans fear that allowing the poor, populous, Muslim state to join the EU will flood Europe with poorly-educated immigrants. Britain, which currently holds the EU presidency, has called an emergency ministers’ meeting October 2 to address Austria’s concerns. Turkey has threatened to withhold its delegation to the talks if EU ministers cannot work out their differences. “This is political brinksmanship within the EU,” says Steven Cook, Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s a risk of a real breach in relations between Ankara and Brussels.”

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What is Austria’s opposition?

Experts say Austria is culturally opposed to Turkey joining the EU. Austria is the remnant of the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires, historic rivals of the Ottoman Empire that preceded Turkey; Ottoman Turks laid siege to Vienna in 1529 and 1683. Today, Austria and a few other EU nations want to offer Turkey a “privileged partnership,” or associate member status, instead of full membership rights. Austria also wants to change the framework of the current negotiations so their end goal is not explicitly Turkish accession. Instead, the talks would be an “open-ended process” whose results are not guaranteed. Austrian EU Ambassador Gregor Waschnagg said September 21 that much has changed since Europe granted Turkey the right to begin accession talks in December 2004: France and the Netherlands rejected the EU Constitution this summer, EU ministers haven’t agreed on a new budget, and opposition to Turkey’s membership in the EU is growing rapidly. Some 80 percent of Austrians oppose Turkey joining the EU, according to The Economist.

Austria also supports Croatia’s EU entry, which is stalled over Croatia’s lack of cooperation handing over war criminals. Austria is threatening to block Turkey’s accession talks unless the EU opens Croatia’s as well. “The Austrians are playing a blackmail game with the EU,” Cook says.

How do most European countries feel about Turkey joining the EU?

Most EU ministers have reservations, experts say, but agree the process should move forward. Britain, Spain, and the Nordic countries support Turkey; even Greece, a historical Turkish enemy, supports its bid. Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said this month that a European Turkey is in everyone’s interest. However, strong elements in Germany, France, and the Netherlands oppose Turkey’s bid. Angela Merkel, head of Germany’s CDU party and potentially Germany’s new chancellor, is against Turkish accession. French voters recently passed an amendment to their constitution saying all EU membership deals after 2007 must be voted on by referendum. And a recent German Marshall Fund report on Transatlantic Trends (PDF) said support for Turkey’s membership was 11 percent in France, 15 percent in Germany and 32 percent in Britain, with over 40 percent undecided in all three countries.

What are the main issues Europe is concerned about?

They include:

  • Demographics. Turkey is huge, poor, and Islamic. Its population of 70 million would make it one of the largest—and fastest-growing—members of the EU. Western Europe has a declining birth rate and needs young workers to prop up its elaborate social pension schemes. However, many observers question whether Turkey can ever fit into the overwhelmingly Christian EU.
  • Human rights. Many European countries say Turkey has not done enough to bring its human rights practices in line with strict EU norms, especially on respecting democracy and the rule of law, protecting human rights, and guaranteeing the rights of minorities.
  • Cyprus. Cyprus is a former British colony that has long been divided between the Greek Cypriot majority and a Turkish Cypriot minority. In 1974, Greek Cypriots tried to take over the government; in response, Turkey invaded and took control of the northern third of the island. The latest round of UN-sponsored talks led to a referendum on unification in April 2004; Turkish Cypriots voted yes, while Greek Cypriots voted no. Cyprus was accepted into the EU anyway, as a new member on May 1 2004. In July 2005, Turkey included Cyprus in an expanded customs union—which offers preferential trading terms—with new EU countries. However, Ankara refused to recognize the Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus. EU ministers have demanded Ankara recognize the divided island or jeopardize the accession negotiations.
  • Armenia. The Ottoman Empire carried out a campaign to eliminate its Armenian population between 1915 and 1923. More than one million people were killed in paramilitary raids, work camps, or death marches. The EU calls this campaign genocide and wants Turkey to acknowledge it; Ankara refuses.
What are the main benefits to Europe if Turkey joins?

Experts say letting a country that is 99 percent Muslim into Europe will send a powerful message to the Arab and Muslim worlds. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said this month, “By welcoming Turkey, we will demonstrate that Western and Islamic cultures can thrive together as partners in the modern world.” Turkey is already an important European trading partner, and its population would be both a vast market for European goods and a ready labor force. In addition, Turkey occupies a strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Its cooperation would aid the EU on everything from the economic challenges posed from the rise of India and China to fighting terrorism, addressing international crime, and monitoring climate change.

What has Turkey done in its quest for EU membership?

“Turkey has met every legal criteria to begin talks,” Cook says. The country has implemented a host of political reforms, including abolishing the death penalty, allowing greater freedom of speech, and increasing rights for its Kurdish minority. Turkey supports EU foreign policy and has troops stationed in Bosnia as part of an EU military mission there. In May, Ankara passed a new criminal code that established a more progressive national legal system—although experts say the law’s impact will depend on how it is implemented. Over the course of the accession talks—which are expected to take at least ten years—Turkey will be required to adopt more than thirty chapters of EU law, covering everything from foreign policy to environmental protection.

What are Turkey’s current economic ties with Europe?

Turkey established a customs union with the EU in 1995, greatly increasing the volume of trade between Ankara and EU member states. The EU is now by far Turkey’s biggest trading partner, particularly in agricultural and steel products. Turkey has also recently liberalized its banking laws and removed state controls from markets including electricity, telecommunications, sugar, tobacco, and petroleum. While the proportion of its population working in agriculture is still high, Turkey is transitioning to a service economy.

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