Almost exactly 30 years ago, in April 1987, Turkey applied for membership in the European Economic Community, a forerunner to the European Union. Turkey’s involvement with European efforts to integrate actually goes back even further, to 1959, a time of budding economic and political alliance in Western Europe. Still, it wasn’t until 2005 that Turkey began official accession negotiations to join the EU.
With a history enmeshed in both Europe and Asia, Turkey’s place within the European community has long been a topic of much debate. But while country’s relationship with European powers has never been simple, many hoped that entry to the EU would mark a new chapter in Turkish-European relations.
That was very much the hope in 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s AK Party stormed to power. The elections seemed to revive Turkey’s European aspirations. Accession was front and centre in Turkish politics, riding on the back of a distinctly pro-European Turkish public opinion. Some polls suggested as many as 70 percent of Turks favoured membership in the EU.
It was a time of increased recognition and rights for Turkey’s minorities, greater religious liberalism, and a ban on capital punishment. All that brought Turkey closer in line with its European counterparts. It seemed at after years of knocking on Europe’s doors, Turkey might finally gain entry.
However, Turkey’s difficult history with Greece soon obstructed negotiations. In 2009 the Greek Cypriot Administration stated that it would block the opening of six chapters of Turkey’s accession process, vetoing Turkish membership of the EU in protest at the Turkish backing of Cyprus’ continued division. With this deadlock, progress on Turkey’s path towards Europe appeared at a standstill.
Yet in August 2013, with the conflict with Kurdish militants at its lowest ebb in decades, Erdoğan turned his attention back to Europe. In his first speech as a newly elected president, Erdoğan put relations with Europe at the very top of his priorities. He promised more decisive efforts towards EU membership and a continuation of reforms in line with the European bloc’s demands, even as top Western officials shunned his inauguration in protest of growing authoritarianism in Turkey.
But Erdoğan’s public proclamation obscured a deeper malaise. Just three months earlier, as mass protests in central Istanbul were met with violent repression, Erdoğan rebuffed accusations of extreme police brutality and calls from across the EU to reign in the crackdown.
Following the Gezi Park protests in mid 2013, amid swelling European criticisms of his increasingly authoritarian rule and the state’s growing impatience with dissent, Turkey hit back at Europe’s leaders.
Exploiting Turkish frustration toward the EU’s treatment of the country, Erdoğan turned the public opinion against the continent. He railed about EU’s hollow promises and feet-dragging, and leveled accusations of Islamophobia, thereby delegitimizing what had been one of the most influential critics of the Turkish government. It’s true that despite decades of discussions about Turkey’s accession, many at the very heart of the European project remained fundamentally opposed to it. Some Turks have been reluctant to accept this reality, but Turkey’s prospect of becoming a full-fledged member of the European alliance may have been dim from the start.
Yet against all odds, Turkish accession talks came back to the fore in 2015. With masses of refugees from Syria and elsewhere reaching its shores, Europe once again needed Turkey on its side. Desperate to quell rising domestic dissent at the influx of a million refugees, European leaders in 2015 promised Erdoğan vast financial support and renewed efforts to implement accession in return for accepting the refugees. They even dangled visa-free travel for Turks — a surefire vote-winner with the Turkish public. The refugee crisis offered a critical reprieve from deteriorating relations between Turkey and her European neighbours.
But that tenuous rapprochement has all but ground to a halt in the past year. In July 2016, a faction within the Turkish armed forces attempted to depose Erdoğan. He responded with ruthlessness. Tens of thousands of people were arrested or fired within days of the coup attempt. In the ensuing months, some 120,000 Turks have been suspended or dismissed from their jobs. More than 40,000 people were arrested in a purge that has gutted state institutions.
The EU has forcefully condemned the mass dismissals, with the bloc’s human rights body even declaring them unconstitutional. In late 2016 the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to suspend accession negotiations with Turkey over human rights and rule of law concerns. In December 2016 EU leaders decided to open no new areas in Turkey’s membership talks, citing Turkey’s path toward autocratic rule as an impossible impediment to accession talks. Erdoğan’s campaign against freedom of the press in Turkey has also drawn rebuke from European leaders, prompting Erdoğan to throw back unfounded mirror allegations at the West.
Erdoğan’s quest to cement his hold on Turkish power through the shift to a presidential system confirmed European fears that Turkey was descending into one-man rule. The months-long campaign saw journalists imprisoned and other flagrant state obstruction on free campaigning against the ‘No’ campaign backed by Erdoğan’s AK Party. Germany and the Netherlands restricted Turkish state-backed rallies in their cities, drawing jibes of “Nazism” from a belligerent Erdoğan late in the campaign.
The referendum handed Erdoğan the kind of singular authority not seen in Turkey since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk‘s one-party state that founded the Republic in 1923. European observers criticized the voting as fundamentally unfair. Erdoğan was quick to rubbish the claims. He soon after announced the possible return of the death penalty, which his supporters have been clamoring for since the 2016 coup attempt. That would be a certain death knell for Turkey’s EU dreams, since banning capital punishment is a prerequisite for membership.
So now the Turkish-European relations are at a generational low. Erdoğan has shown little let up in his regular lambasting of the EU. That in turn has only hardened Europe’s heart. A recent poll found that three in four Europeans now oppose granting Turkey entry to the EU. Barring a complete U-turn, this latest chapter in the Turkish Republic’s relationship with the West seemed headed for a certain conclusion: the doors of Europe have closed, and Turkey has walked away.