It is safe to say that in the history of the European Union’s enlargement starting in 1973, the first spectacular failure is the candidacy of Turkey. It is also safe to say that this missed opportunity is the making of a coalition of the unwilling between the parties concerned.
For the EU, the missed opportunity is encompassing Islam’s synergy and coexistence with the rest of the world. For Turkey, implications go beyond a simple failed candidacy. Diverging from the EU path, Turkey consolidates and seals its de-Westernisation drive to start sailing toward uncharted waters.
Turkey first formally applied for association with what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC) on July 31, 1959. The Association Agreement, a.k.a. the Ankara Agreement, was signed on Sept. 12, 1963, and entered into force on Dec. 1 the following year.
The second landmark decision in the Turkish journey was the Customs Union, a critical bond between the parties since Jan. 1, 1996 when it went into force. In 2019, trade between Turkey and the EU stood at €138,065 billion, making Turkey the EU’s sixth largest trading partner with 3.4 per cent.
The third landmark decision was made in 1999 in Helsinki, when the European Council placed Turkey on the same footing as the newly independent states of central and eastern Europe to join the bloc.
Turkey’s candidacy was revised then, in line with the new rules of the enlargement policy deriving from the sudden end of the Cold War, and the urgency to cope with a fait accompli. Ankara was the oldest candidate among all, but it was nonetheless asked to comply with the new criteria designed for beyond the Iron Curtain. Accordingly, the country has been positioned as part of the new Europe, taking shape in the post-Soviet era.
Thus, the decision to include Turkey in the latest enlargement wave and to invite it to join the European family was not an act of charity. It was a genuine political act taking mutual interests into full consideration.
Through the integration process, the EU aimed to lay the foundations for sustainable economic, political, and social stability in Turkey. In turn, normalisation in Turkey (and similarly the former candidate countries of central and eastern Europe) was considered to be the best guarantee for freedom, peace, security and stability in the continent as a whole.
In Helsinki, the EU’s political leaders made a politically courageous decision to showcase that “Grande Europe”, as a future world power, would be able to integrate different countries on the basis of shared values, unhindered by differences in cultures.
Turkey was an important case since it personified values that allegedly contradict Europe’s, and the success of such an undertaking would no doubt be an example for Muslim-majority countries around the Mediterranean, by demonstrating that modernity was within reach for secular Muslim societies.
Turkey would also have had much to gain from the process of integration to the EU, not the least in the opportunity to benefit from experiences and techniques of its partners to brilliantly achieve the 200-year-old Western-inspired modernisation process; a process in which it always stood half-way toward attaining a genuinely stable and prosperous democracy.
Ankara would also adapt to a life without enemies surrounding the country, and reconcile first with itself, then with its archenemies.
The country would rediscover its past, confront its memory and history, and recover certain customs it had to sacrifice in its attempt to acquire a “modern European appearance”. All these would be realised in an environment of mutual confidence which would enable Turkey to feel at home in Europe.
And the bet was a winning one, at least partially, between 1999 and 2005. Today, this fairy tale is over, and the responsibility lies on both parties.
The EU’s perception of Turkey and its membership perspective, in spite of tremendous changes after 1999, has always been on negative territory. Turkey’s size and its relative feebleness have been an ongoing cause for concern. Deep down, its religious and historical features have puzzled the mind constantly. Countless arguments have been made against Turkey’s membership from the whole of the European political spectrum, from the farthest right to the most extreme left.
In face of the EU’s disheartening strategy and tactics, Turkish governments have reacted differently in content and objective over the years. In the beginning, there was a sort of disappointment, while after 2007 Ankara took an increasingly divergent path over pre-accession efforts, and finally discarded the EU project after 2013.
A noticeable retreat from EU norms, standards and principles started in 2013, and has continued since. Today, Turkish officials take every opportunity to disregard the EU’s fundamental values in order to claim Turkey’s singularity – if not superiority.
In fact, the EU paradigm and its content have become liabilities in front of an increasingly authoritarian regime in which the arbitrary nature of one-man rule has become the norm. This trend saw an uptick after the so-called coup d’état of July 15, 2016, when the regime “blessedly” took the opportunity to suppress any meaningful dissent.
Today, Turkish politics’ deep-rooted anti-Westernism rides the waves, and Europe-bashing has become a favourite sport.
This state of affairs was reflected in a European Council decision, which took note of the standstill and declared on June 26, 2018 that Turkey had been “moving further away from the European Union. Turkey’s accession negotiations have therefore effectively come to a standstill and no further chapters can be considered for opening or closing and no further work towards the modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union is foreseen”.
Technically speaking, Turkey is a unique case of failure to join the EU. Europe does not have any institutional memory of how to deal with this, similarly to Brexit. The EU’s spineless behaviour vis-à-vis the Turkish regime’s authoritarian drive illustrates how directionless the bloc is in this post-candidacy era. The biggest lesson here is that the EU cannot benignly close ad hoc deals pertaining to its interests and security with Turkey, which does not feel bound by any membership and/or partnership obligations. It would be difficult to bet on EU (and NATO) ties to, for instance, ease tensions with neighbours, or to call upon Ankara to conform to the acquis communautaire in terms of environmental protection and disaster prevention.
With the EU horizon gone, Turkey has entered uncharted waters. The EU dynamic needed to both transform and reform has faded away, leaving behind old, bad habits. The political class, government, and opposition alike have abandoned the EU perspective, leaving little room for civil society to continue to support the process. The rest is history. Turkey has not only rescinded its candidacy, it has gone off in the opposite direction, into a new regime of blatant authoritarian, anti-European traits, vying for the support of about half its population.
It looks as though the fairy tale is over, the historic rendezvous missed.
The above is an abridged version of an article originally published here.