By Stefano Filipuzzi and Emre Sonmez
It has now been more than 30 years since Turkey first applied for EEC membership. While some welcomed the perspective of a Turkish entry into the European family with much enthusiasm, others received it with more skepticism. However, over the years, misunderstandings multiplied, and mutual trust faded, leading to a de facto abandonment of this ambitious project. The very same Council was not afraid to state, in June 2018, that the negotiations with Ankara are “effectively frozen.”
In analyzing the reasons for this progressive detachment between the EU and Turkey, people tend to focus solely on Europe’s perspective. What is less common is to consider Turkish public opinion and attitudes towards the Union. By carrying out such analysis, the emerging reality reveals a highly polarised society on the issue. Thus, this division trascends political party lines.
This polarisation recalls a broader cleavage that runs deep through Turkish domestic politics. The most religious and conservative people firmly oppose the pursuit of stronger ties with Europe. By contrast, the most secularised and progressive segments of society believe that the EU membership could be positive from all perspectives (especially in economics, democracy, and human rights promotion). Nonetheless, only 20% of the Turkish population is confident that this process will be completed, according to a 2018 survey.
Turkish public opinion’s mistrust towards the EU also emerges clearly through a historical analysis of the headlines of the country’s principal newspapers.
Of course, the underlying reasons behind this stiffening are countless. However, we wanted to shed light on three reasons, which, from our point of view, will make Turkey give up on the idea of joining the European Union – if it has not done so already.
Reason 1: Nationalism
The first reason behind Turkish society’s hostile position vis-à-vis the EU is the “rising nationalist sentiment.” The nationalist logic is fueled by the perception of a weak EU that appears to be constantly on the verge of breaking up. The recent crises the EU has faced have certainly contributed to reinforcing this idea. In particular, the management of the Greek economic crisis has instilled fear in many segments of Turkish society, who have come to believe that adopting the euro would be detrimental to their national economy. Additionally, from an economically standpoint, Turkey sees itself in a better position compared to the Union. This belief, although not supported by factual evidence, can be summarised by the catchphrase “EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs EU,” which has been popularised by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself. In the same way, the departure of the UK from the EU is often cited as an example to argue that the EU is a organisation bound to collapse, thus necessitating the search for more valid alternatives.
This sentiment is even stronger if one considers that many Turks take pride in their century-old heritage. As a result, they are not inclined to accept the idea that, once part of the EU, they would need to compromise with other countries on a multitude of issues. Indeed, they perceive this compromise as a violation of the principle of national sovereignty, particularly when many EU member states have inferior economic, demographic, and military power compared to Turkey. All these factors contribute to the belief that Turkey could thrive outside the Union.
Reason 2: Religion
The religious element is likely the “unspoken” obstacle that significantly hinders the Turkish accession process. In this regard, the European hesitation towards Turkey has undoubtedly convinced many that the EU is essentially a club of Christian nations. This perception has contributed to a substantial loss of faith among a significant portion of the Turkish electorate regarding a positive outcome in the accession process.
However, the analogy between Europe and Christianity has also been exploited domestically for political purposes. It has been used as a means to create an external enemy and, consequently, to consolidate the government’s legitimacy. It is no coincidence that Turkish President Erdoğan has capitalised on this fundamental European hypocrisy regarding religion by openly claiming that “there is only one reason why Europe does not accept Turkey: it is because we are Muslims.”
Erdoğan’s statements are part of a broader discourse that emphasises the rediscovery of Islam as a unifying element for the Turkish nation. Despite Turkey being formally a secular country, the ruling party (AKP) has displayed a hostile attitude towards secularism. This hostility is reflected in numerous behaviours aimed at positioning Turkey as the leader of the Islamic world. An explicit example of this is the declaration made by the President of the Turkish Parliament, Ismaïl Kahraman, in 2016, where he expressed the need for a religious constitution.
It is evident that the atmosphere of ideological opposition towards Europe, deliberately fostered by the ruling party to maintain domestic consensus, is at odds with the spirit of cooperation that should instead prevail when a country is on the verge of joining a political union of fraternal nations.
Reason 3: Turanism
The third aspect pertains an ideological movement that advocated for increased cooperation amongst Central Asian republics, potentially leading to their eventual unification. This movement, known as Turanism, stands in contrast to the EU’s goals. While primarly supported by nationalist fringes (MHP), Turanism highlights that some Turks feel a stronger emotional connection to Turkic peoples rather than Europeans.
Although pan-Turkic aspirations are shared only by a minority of Turks, the argument still stands. Even among those who are in favor of closer ties with Europe, there is not necessarilly a desire to become culturally assimilated into it.. Rather, the prevailing belief is that Turkey does not belong exclusively to the East or to the West, and thus it should fully embrace its two-fold identity without necessarily favouring one aspect above the other.
A process bound to fall from the beginning
To conclude, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will ever join the EU. The reasons for this stem from the fact that Turkey would need to fundamentally undermine three crucial elements of its national identity: the concept of nationhood, the relevance of religion, and the emotional bond with other Turkic peoples. The process of joining the EU would therefore necessitate a radical rethinking of the very same Turkish people’s sense of national consciousness, which is a far more complex undertaking than simply implementing political and economic reforms. Furthermore, recent events such as the insults to the German, Dutch and French authorities, the exploitation of migrant flows, or the recent institutional rudeness to the President of the European Commission all indicate that the objective of EU membership for Turkey is nowhere in sight.
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0.00-0.15 I’m not a fan of joining the EU. I think Europe, in particular, is not protecting human rights. I don’t think that it’s going to help us.
0.16-0.36 I see that Europe is trying to force us too hard. I see that Europe is hostile to Tayyip Erdogan. They are trying to put Turkey in a difficult position economically, but I support Erdogan… and the people are also behind our leader.
0.37-0.50 I think both sides need to follow a more middle-of-the-road approach with each other… both the EU and the President of Turkey. But I believe that broken relations can be improved if both sides make sacrifices.
0.51-1.14 For many years, Turkey has been treated as a stepson. They kept stalling and using tactics. For example, they did not give the money they had promised, even for immigrants. In addition, Turkey is a country that has always been criticized. I think it is better if it doesn’t join.
1.15-1.29 They won’t accept us. We’ll wait at the door, but they won’t take us in… because we are a Muslim country.
1.30-1.47 Where I am is Europe! The European side of Turkey. Of course, our expectation is a free country, freer people, better life. It’s a good thing that our president is meeting with EU leaders.
1.48-2.00 I don’t think we need to join the European Union. I just want the visa problem to be fixed.