Turkey, much like other states that have historically governed Anatolia, has stood at the precarious crossroads between Asia and Europe. From the Achaemenid Empire, through to Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the advent of the modern Turkish state; all have felt the unique strains of this position. Nowhere are the difficulties that this location provides more obvious than in the current debate regarding Turkish accession to the European Union (EU).
Turkey has been a member state of several regional European economic unions and diplomatic groups such the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 1961 and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) since 1973, and has been a strong player in bridging European and Middle Eastern relations( long a Western bastion during the Cold War). On 12 December 1999, Turkey was officially recognized as a candidate for full membership to the EU and negotiations have been ongoing since 2005.
Turkey faces a range of daunting challenges as there are several standards that must be met in order for accession to take place- some of which Turkey has struggled with for a number of years. The Copenhagen Criteria for membership state that,
Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.
Geography and demographics play a key role. The EU does not want to share borders with Syria, Iran or Iraq, and at a population of 77 million and a high nativity rate, Turkey would be the dominant member in the European Parliament. Despite high levels of growth, hovering at around 3.5% in 2014, Turkey’s economy remains acutely underdeveloped by European standards and wealth distribution remains direly unequal. Istanbul is home to the fifth greatest number of billionaires amongst cities, yet child poverty has been sharply on the rise in recent years, a sign of the government’s failing social policies and piecemeal economic reforms.
However, it is Turkey’s political and democratic record that constitutes the largest obstacle to membership. Turkey’s stance on Cyprus is an insurmountable snag and, in spite of being a vibrant democracy, Turkey is not yet what we might consider a mature European democracy. The Turkish political class and the executive arm of government have proved in recent years just how unprepared the country is for accession.
Current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a former semi-pro footballer, founder of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP), and mayor of Istanbul, has not been deterred from his autocratic tendencies. Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014, he was elected to the largely ceremonial role of President on July 1, 2014. Pulling what might be called a ‘Putin’, his new Prime Minister and successor Ahmet Davutoğlu, cast as Dmitry Medvedev, is suspected of playing a docile role, to put it lightly.
Freedom of the press has been severely curtailed under Erdoğan. The media watch dog Reporters Without Borders accuses Turkey of “being one of the world’s biggest prisons for media workers.” Insulting the Turkish nation, its army, or security forces are offenses that can lead to conviction and imprisonment. Turkey also lacks mainstream media independence. Erdoğan attempted to block Youtube and Twitter in 2013, which he called a “menace to society”, succeeding for over a month until the judiciary annulled the executive order.
Protests against the Erdoğan government in 2013 and 2014 were met with a violent crackdown by the police and AKP youths, causing some 22 deaths. The EU denounced the state-led repression and stalled ascension talks.
As of February 3rd, Erdoğan is reportedly planning to introduce his son and daughter onto the political scene, in a bid to have them elected to parliament for the AKP. His opponents and critiques fear such nepotism could be a move towards creating an enduring political dynasty.
With the Eurozone crisis casting doubts about the success of the monetary union and the nature of potential reforms, misgivings which are further exacerbated by the refugee crisis in Syria, and a government that seems completely unabashed in its disregard for essential democratic principles, Turkey’s accession to the EU in the near future seems altogether highly unlikely.