The Other Debate About Turkish EU membership

                        by James Ker-Lindsay, Managing Director, Civilitas Research


The recent heated discussions over the start of formal membership talks between Turkey and the European Union have obscured an equally important – if not more important – debate over whether or not Turkey truly wants to join the EU.


While it has been taken as an article of faith that the country is committed to EU accession, over the past year there has been a noticeable drop in the levels of public support for membership. Whereas traditionally support for joining the EU stood at around 75 per cent, over the past twelve months this has fallen to just over 60 per cent. Looking ahead, many analysts expect these levels to fall even further once talks finally begin.


For a start, few in Turkey truly understand the process of accession. Although termed ‘negotiations’, the EU accession talks provide remarkably little room for bargaining. Given Turkish sensitivities towards national sovereignty – which has been shown by a recent Pew Global Survey to be amongst the highest in the world – this is likely to prove very difficult for many in Turkey to accept. Euroscepticism is likely to grow still further once the accession process inevitably touches on important, even sacrosanct, elements of Turkish life. Once both of these factors become clear, calls from within Turkey to end the accession process in favour of a privileged partnership with Europe are almost certain to increase. Quite when the tipping point may occur is difficult to say, but there are real signs that the roots of Turkish disenchantment with the dream of EU membership are starting to take hold.


In the meantime, and taking these factors into account, the current vocal opposition to Turkish accession is actually proving to be counter-productive. Rather than dissuading the Turkish government from pursuing membership, the growing opposition appears instead to be seen as an affront to Turkish national pride. In Turkey, EU membership is generally seen as a right and not a privilege. Being told it is not eligible only serves to strengthen the resolve of the Turkish government to pursue membership, as odd and contradictory as this might seem.


Ironically, less external opposition is likely to mean more internal opposition to EU membership. If Turkey is left to decide on its own whether EU membership is the best option for the country, there is good reason to suppose that it will decide that it is not.


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