Turkey’s Membership in the EU: Realistic or Merely Wishful?

Professor Bahri Yilmaz is the owner of the Jean Monnet Chair at Sabancı University in Istanbul. He was a visiting fellow at Pembroke College, Cambridge and at the Center for European Studies  Harvard University. In addition to his academic experience, he has worked as the Chief Advisor to the Ministry of State for European Union Affairs in Ankara (1997-2002). His main fields of research and teaching interest focuses on European Union, International Political Economy, the newly emerging markets, and globalization.

“Utterly failed,” were the words chosen by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to describe the status of immigrants, especially those from Turkey, in a nation that has tried to dramatically change its stance towards minority issues.

Since September, 2010, the German and Turkish media have been debating over a controversial publication Germany Does Away with Itself. The author Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the German Central Bank and a center-left politician, describes in his book the danger of an integration-resistant Muslim community for German society in the coming years. Sarrazin claims that Muslim immigration and high birth rate among Turkish immigrants will damage Germany’s long term economic potential.

Merkel weighed in the discussion and publicly stated that “Muslims in this country must accept that Germany’s culture is based on Christian and Jewish values.” Her key ally, the Bavarian Prime Minister Horst Seehofer further put forward the controversial claim in Focus Magazine, stating that Germany must take necessary steps to “deal with the people who already live here and get tougher on those who refuse to integrate” before accepting more migrant workers.

Opinion polls and statements by leading European politicians confirm the fact that Turkey’s membership does not have wide support by most European citizens. According to the opinion polls conducted by the Emnid Institute for the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, 69 percent of interviewed German citizens are against just 27 percent in favor of Turkey’s membership in the EU. The 2010 results of the German Marshall Fund’s Annual Transatlantic Trends paint more or less the same picture all over Europe. The share of EU citizens who are in favor of Turkish membership has dropped to 23 percent from 29 percent in 2004.

The refusal or inability to integrate cannot be merely explained as unwillingness on the side of the immigrants; the German and Turkish governments also need to be viewed critically as a responsible actor for the conditions through which people have remained unable to fully integrate into German society.

Turkish workers began to immigrate to EU countries, mainly to Germany, 50 years ago; the number of Turkish immigrants reached almost three million alone in Germany in the 1980s. Most of these immigrants were unskilled labourers ready to accept any kind of job. In the 1960s the German government assumed that the so-called “guest workers” would return back home after saving up sufficient funds to build a better life in Turkey. Unexpectedly, a large number of these guest workers decided to settle down and many of their family members followed them to Germany. During the late 1970s the German government did not take the necessary steps to integrate the Turkish immigrants into German society. Even by the 1990s, when such immigrants had been living in Germany for over 30 years, it was still impossible for them to become accepted as German citizens. Throughout this time the German population has remained ignorant and prejudiced towards a people with whom they have been living side by side. Ghettos have sprung up and discrimination, violence, and isolation have plagued the Turkish community. Despite this overall negative picture, a small percentage of Turkish immigrants have broken through this web of prejudices and become members of the German Parliament and various segments of German society.

While the majority of immigrants were never fully integrated, the blame for this does not rest solely on German institutions. The Turkish side persisted in regarding the Turkish guest workers in Germany as an integral part of Turkey's population, an attitude that did not help the guest workers participate in European society. It is interesting to note that three million Turkish workers were unable to advocate their own political and economic interest in German society as taxpayers or German citizens. This is an equivalent number to the full population of many of the smaller EU member states. On top of their inability to advocate their own interest, Turkish workers could not help Turkey’s chances of attaining full membership in the European Union. Especially in times of economic recessions and increasing unemployment, the anti-migrant sentiment grew rapidly. Hence in recent years the negative picture of Turkish immigrants remains at best unchanged and has perhaps even worsened.


What Is It All About?


The story of Turkish-EU relations began with the application of Turkey and Greece for membership in the former European Economic Community (EEC) in 1959. Both countries were associate members of the Community, with the potential of becoming full members at a future date. Greece became a full member of the EU in 1981. Ever since, Turkey has been knocking on the EU’s door, and thus has been waiting as a candidate country longer than any other outsider. In April 1987, Turkey applied for full membership in the EU, but was rejected on the grounds that Turkey was not ready for the membership. Turkey tried again at the European Summit Meeting in Helsinki in December 1999. Finally, on October 3, 2005 the EU decided to begin the accession negotiations with Turkey under tough conditions. From the beginning the negotiations divided Europeans substantially, and some member countries have reacted with mixed feelings to the declaration of the Turkish candidacy. Many European newspapers and politicians criticized the decision of the European Council harshly.

One of the main arguments that wage against Turkey’s membership is the claim that it represents cultural, religious, and mental “otherness”. The argument that European culture is based upon a Judeo-Christian identity and a heritage leading back to Greek and Roman civilization implicitly argues that Turkey has no place in the European Union. However, this is not the only reason for the rejection of Turkey as an EU member. Turkey's membership under current membership regulations would, due to its high population, put it in a similar position in the decision making process as the leading countries in Europe. It would be represented in all European institutions at the same level as Germany, the United Kingdom and France, and would take up a dominant position in institutions and decision making processes.

Turkey is, however, the most economically disadvantaged country in Europe at the moment.  So many critics argue that Turkey’s membership could cause risk to the political and economic balance of the EU. It is certainly expected that Turkey will receive great financial assistance from structural, regional and common agricultural funds if present policies remained unchanged for the next 15-20 years. Additionally, it is argued that the membership will induce a massive movement of labour from Turkey to the rest of Europe and will increase European social welfare costs while decreasing the living standards.

In addition, Cyprus poses another major issue in the relations between Turkey and the rest of Europe. The EU made an unwise decision to accept the “Greek part of Cyprus” as a full member without unification of the North and the South parts of the island as the Annan Plan suggested in 2004. Since this moment, Brussels seems to have become a prisoner of its own policy. The 1963 “Association Agreement” stressed the fact that Turkey needs to extend the customs union to all new member countries which have joined the EU since 1996. In other words, Turkey should open its ports and airports to ships and planes from the Greek part of Cyprus. But Ankara states that ports will not be opened until the EU allows the northern Turkish part of Cyprus to trade directly with EU states.

Leaders of Turkish and Greek Cypriots have been meeting and talking for several years but have not reached any concrete results in achieving a final settlement over long standing issues such as the structure of federal states, property restitution, withdrawals of Turkish soldiers from the north, and security guarantees. As long as Brussels, in close cooperation with the United States, is not fully determined to make an acceptable commitment to finding a solution on the island, the Cyprus issue will remain a central handicap for Turkey’s membership aspirations.  The European Union should not allow both Greek Cypriots and Greece to take advantage of their membership in the bilateral issues concerning Turkey. The member states that are against the accession of Turkey into the Union should not hide behind the bilateral confrontation on the Aegean and Cyprus issues.