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INSIGHT, Incek Debates: After the migration crisis and the current chaos in the Middle East, what does the future hold for Turkey in the European Union?

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

INSIGHT, Incek Debates           

After the migration crisis and the current chaos in the Middle East, what does the future hold for Turkey in the European Union?


Incek Debates, on 8 December 2016, discussed ‘What the future held for Turkey in the European Union’. Speakers were Amb Hasan Kemal Gür (ret’d), RADM Deniz Kutluk (ret’d) and Assoc Prof Müge Kınacıoğlu, Director of the Center for Research on EU Studies (Hacettepe University). The session was chaired by Dr Haldun Solmazturk and was participated by a select group of experts as well as an international representation from the diplomatic corps resident in Ankara. Below is Rapporteur’s Summary of the debate, not necessarily reflecting particular viewpoints expressed by any one of the panelists, nor those of any one or all of the participants in consensus. The debate was off-the-record.


The month of November 2016 has been the worst month ever, since 1997, for Turkey-EU relations, when EU rejected Turkey’s application to become a candidate country and roundly stated that Turkey would never be permitted to join Europe as a full member.

Against this background, Incek Debates discussed, ‘after the migration crisis and the current chaos in the Middle East, what the future held for Turkey in the European Union’.

Executive Summary

Modern Turkish Republic became member of the Council of Europe, NATO and many other European institutions, and applied for full EC membership in 1963. However, the Republic failed in creating the democratic institutions, introducing good governance, holding governments accountable, rooting out corruption, and empowering the citizen. Turkish society remains almost as divided as it was in 1839. EU accession process has been utilized instrumentally by both sides to advance their own policies based on ulterior aims.

Question of Cyprus remains a major stumbling block. By admitting the Republic of Cyprus into the EU, EU violated its own rules and principles. As long as Turkey remains a ‘candidate’, unable to solve border disputes with two other members these problems will continue to feed back into each other like chicken or the egg dilemma.

Opposition to Turkey’s entry into Europe is not limited to Greece and ‘Cyprus’. Rise of xenophobia and racism, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, particularly anti-Turkish sentiments in European publics—and politics—all reduce chances of Turkey’s membership.

Instrumentalization of the EU accession process is still useful and politically beneficial for the current Turkish leadership. Meanwhile, EU still finds Turkey’s accession ‘process’ valuable and expedient for sustaining Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against terrorism, and assistance in dealing with the migration crisis. Nevertheless, EU may soon find it very difficult to balance ‘values’ with interests. Both Turkey and EU have reached a turning point now.

Despite the open-ended accession process with many strings attached cut-and-run is not an option and breaking up with the EU—a divorce even before the marriage ceremony—is unlikely.

Turkey has gone back to square one in the EU accession process. No matter if this is a love affair or an affair of convenience, union with or without some temporary or permanent derogations, is highly unlikely.  

Although Turkey wants Europe to decide “whether it wants to shape its vision for the future with Turkey or without Turkey”, Europe has already done so.. On the other hand, support for EU membership is also consistently declining in Turkey.

This leaves both parties with the need for looking for an alternative path leading to an alternative form of union, based on selective areas for full cooperation—short of full membership. One school of thought on this option considers, waiting at the doorstep of EU indefinitely insulting and futile. However, one other school of thought opposes any other alternative short of full membership and advises ‘wisdom of patience’.

Turkey remains a torn country.. Even worse, it turned a ‘cleft country’, deeply divided within itself with conflicting values, identities and widely differing perceptions of national interests. Turks, for different reasons, unite in resentment against Europe—a sentiment wholeheartedly reciprocated by the latter. Under these circumstances, it is highly likely that, until Turkey is able to address its own challenges—particularly polarization and division in society and politics—and resolve them, relations with EU will remain in a ‘twilight realm’ and Turkey will have no real future within or with the European Union. There is very little Europe can do about this.  

Recommendations to the Turkish government:

- Put your own house in order first, and build national unity.

- Review aims and purposes of piecemeal policy statements—and actions taken, in the light of the radically changed reality on the ground.

- Avoid offensive language, refrain from anti-Western rhetoric for domestic political consumption.

- Engage the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and work out diplomatic channels in formulating and implementing foreign policy.

- Initiate a foreign policy debate—to include the future of Turkey-EU relations—in Turkey involving academia, civil society, media, the public at large and the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.

- Withdraw the constitutional amendment package and focus on pressing and gravely threatening problems of Turkey instead.

Recommendations to EU and EU member states:

- Balance Turkey’s concerns and interests fairly with those of the West.

- Involve Turkey as an equal partner, player.

- Communicate your policies, views, concerns to the Turkish government, political opposition and the Turkish public at large, honestly and explicitly.

- Review EU policies on ‘Cyprus’ and ‘Kurds’ as a matter of priority.

- Intensify the fight against racism, xenophobia and hate crime.


‘The classic torn country-rejected by Brussels’

The chair shared excerpts from a book which—despite much (but increasingly weakened by world events) criticism directed to it—became a classic in making some sense of the complex world of ‘civilizations’:

“In a cleft country major groups from two or more civilizations say, in effect, ‘We are different peoples and belong in different places.’ The forces of repulsion drive them apart and they gravitate toward civilizational magnets in other societies. A torn country, in contrast, has a single predominant culture which places it in one civilization but its leaders want to shift it to another civilization. They say, in effect, ‘We are one people and belong together in one place but we want to change that place.’ Unlike the people of cleft countries, the people of torn countries agree on who they are but disagree on which civilization is properly their civilization. ... Mustafa Kemal’s country is, of course, the classic torn country which since the 1920s has been trying to modernize, to Westernize and to become part of the West.” (Huntington 1997: 138)

According to Huntington “The process of identity redefinition will be prolonged, interrupted, and painful, politically, socially, institutionally, and culturally. It also to date has failed”:

“For a torn country successfully redefine its civilizational identity, at least three requirements must be met. First the political and economic elite of the country has to be generally supportive of and enthusiastic about this move. Second, the public has to be at least willing to acquiesce in the redefinition of identity. Third, the dominant elements in the host civilization, in most cases the West, have to be willing to embrace the convert. … For many years Turkey met two of the three minimum requirements for a torn country to shift its civilizational identity. Turkey’s elites overwhelmingly supported the move and its public was acquiescent. The elites of the recipient, Western civilization, however, were not receptive”. (Huntington 1997: 139, 148-49)

Debate utilized the ‘civilizational approach’ based on the values debate, and ‘realism’ based on interests, as conceptual tools to discuss a future for Turkey, either in or—if not inwith the European Union.

A history of resistance to democratization, renaissance, enlightenment—and ‘reformation’

Starting in the 1830s, Turkey (earlier, Ottoman Turkey) has been making great efforts to align its institutions and laws with European norms for eventually becoming a ‘European’ state. Such top-down efforts aimed at changing first mindset of its top-level civil-military bureaucrats, modernize the state, introduce good—and effective—governance and then some form of constitutional monarchy thereby checking and balancing—ultimately limiting—the absolute political and religious power of the sultan. They took forms of edicts ‘granting’ rights and, in 1876, a constitution.

Reforms were introduced by reform-minded sultans, but were not embraced by neither their successors nor the society—particularly ulema and conservative, religious groups—as a whole. Nor European powers were actually supportive of reforms in the Empire. Although the 1876 Constitution placed only minimal restrictions on sultan’s power, it could live for two years only. Sultan Abdülhamit II suspended the Constitution and dismissed the Ottoman Parliament in 1878.

The reintroduction of the Constitution was only made possible in 1908 by a coup-d’etat. However this did not succeed in arresting the rapid decline and eventual collapse of the Empire in 1918, at the end of the World War I. It was first occupied and then partitioned—by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres—among Western powers.

The new Republic of Turkey was formed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne as a modern, Western-looking, but necessarily semi-democratic state—as opposed to a democratic one. However it was based on certain modern premises to include a ‘democratic’ political system. It shifted the sources of political legitimacy from traditional or charismatic to legal/rational basis. This value shift, of necessity, required self-confident, freedom-loving, enlightened citizens of the Republic to prevail over the obedient subjects of modern-time sultans, so that populistic policies and rhetorics of undemocratic elites could not steal the democratization, reverse the wave and reintroduce a political system anything but democratic. 

Modern Turkish Republic became member of the Council of Europe, NATO and many other European institutions, and applied for full EU membership (then still European Community) in 1963. However, the Republic failed in creating the democratic institutions, introducing good governance, holding governments accountable, rooting out institutionalized (and, sadly, culturally internalized) corruption, and bringing up—and empowering—the citizen it desperately needed. In 2016 Turkish society remains as divided, ideologically, politically and culturally, almost as it was in 1839—177 years ago. EU accession process has proven rather counter-productive in this sense because it has been utilized instrumentally by both sides (successive Turkish governments and EU bodies) to advance their own policies based on ulterior aims. …


The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.

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