Although Turkey first applied to join the European Union in 1987, and negotiations began in 2005, recent events in Europe and the Middle east have led to a shift in Turkish favor away from Europe and towards the Middle East. The number of Turks who favored joining the European Union fell from 73 percent in 2004 to 38 percent in 2010. Even though the negotiations between the Turkish government and the European Union are ongoing, many experts believe that they have stalled in recent months. At the same time, Turkey is taking an increasingly prominent role in the Middle East, most recently working with the arab league to monitor the conflict in Syria and refusing to adopt the EU and US-endorsed embargoes of Iranian oil unless they were endorsed by the United Nations.
Located at the conjunction of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, Turkish foreign policy has long a delicate balancing act between disparate regions. One of the foundational principles of the Republic, often voiced by Ataturk in the 1920s, was that Turkey should avoid becoming heavily involved in Middle Eastern affairs. This was followed for most of the twentieth century, as Turkey focused most of its energy on the Soviet Union, believed to be its greatest threat. The first and second Gulf Wars were two of the main events that encouraged Turkish attention to return to the East, as the Turkish president strongly supported the first war, and the Turkish public was extremely opposed to the second. A destabilized Iraq, which shares a border with Turkey, has strengthened the Kurdish independence movement, a direct threat to Turkey. This increased interest in the Middle east has also become apparent in Turkish relationships with Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, among other countries. Trade between Turkey and the Middle East has increased dramatically, as made apparent through the Turkish purchase of Middle Eastern oil.
Europeans have long held complicated opinions on Turkey, simultaneously celebrating its position as a secular liberal democracy while resisting its inclusion into the European Union. Turkey’s military and economic strength, status as a regional power, and ties to the Middle East are all reasons that many Europeans support the accession of Turkey to the European Union. As part of the negotiation process, Turkey has also made many legislative reforms that have improved the country’s human rights record through the reduction of torture in prisons, among other abuses. Despite being a country with a Muslim majority, Turkey has also enacted legislation that restricts women who wear the hijab, similar to existing laws in many European countries. Some EU members and Turks fear that a slowdown in negotiations could lead to the cessation or reversal of reforms as well as the waste of US $1.06 billion budgeted by the European Union for development projects within Turkey in 2012.
Acceding to the European Union, however, requires a unanimous vote of the 27 member states, and many of these countries are strongly opposed to Turkey joining the European Union. France and Germany are particularly vociferous opponents, and their respective leaders during the height of the accession talks, Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, both regularly spoke out against Turkish accession. They argued that Turkey had not yet enacted enough reforms to be considered for EU membership and instead suggested that Turkey should have a “privileged partnership” with the European Union, citing the slowdown of reforms in Turkey as evidence that Turkey should not accede. There is, therefore, a chicken-and-egg problem, with some people arguing that the slowdown in Turkish legislative reforms is the result of stalled negotiations, and others arguing that it is the cause. The conflict over Cyprus, which has created a great deal of tension between Turkey and EU member Greece, has also been an ongoing problem in negotiations. Turkey’s refusal to adopt the Ankara Protocol, which would give ships from the Greek-Cypriot southern part of the island free access to Turkish ports, has been a particularly important point of contention.
Even if there were more support for Turkey’s accession, recent developments have convinced some people that Turkey that joining the European Union is no longer in Turkey’s best interests. the economic damage wrought by the Eurozone crisis has both made the European Union even warier of admitting new members and made the European Union much less appealing to Turkey. at the same time that the European Union has become less economically hospitable, Turkey has been playing an increasingly large role in the Middle East. The Arab Spring provided an opportunity for Turkey to exert its influence, particularly in Syria, and encouraged Middle Eastern countries to become more democratic. A recent poll by the Turkish think tank TESEV revealed that the majority of people in eight Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, consider Turkey their favorite country. It makes sense that Turks would be loath to abandon this newfound influence in one of the most rapidly changing areas of the world. Given the apparent disinterest, if not outright opposition, from many Europeans at the prospect of Turkey acceding to the European Union, perhaps turning toward the Middle East is in Turkey’s best interest.