The Potential Political, Economic, and Social Impacts of Turkish Membership in the European Union

By: Patton Pray


The expansion of the European Union has been a topic of debate and study since its formation. Now, in this time of great political change and international growth, the possibility of the European Union expanding beyond the traditional borders of Europe is closer than ever before. While there is an established interest in bringing the borders of the European Union closer to the Middle East and Israel, there is much disagreement over the best interest of the community in regards to expansion. Turkey, a long-time power player in the Middle East, has a lot to offer the European Union, but does that make it a beneficial pairing? The history of integration is analyzed to discover how the addition of Turkey could strengthen the European Union or alternatively lead to its decay. There have been many countries that seemed too different from the established European Union to be integrated, most notably in the wave of expansion after the fall of Communism, and yet each has easily become part of the larger supranational community. However, in the modern European climate of “Euro-skepticism” after the financial crisis that swept the Union in 2009, many believe that any expansion could destabilize the already fragile government. Additionally, the presence of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments across Europe makes the consideration of a state that connects Europe and Asia especially delicate. And now, in light of the current fight against the Islamic State terrorist organization that is at Turkey’s door, it must be asked if Turkey presents more of a threat or promise in securing the region.

The Potential Political, Economic, and Social Impacts of Turkish Membership in the European Union

Throughout modern history the Middle East has been both a center for unrest and the focus of massive global attention. While the Middle East is unrivaled in regards to history and religion, the nations that constitute this region have been entangled in generations of conflict combined with the frequent involvement of foreign powers. Europe has more often than not been a source or contributor of foreign intervention in the Middle East, tracing from the Crusades and continuing through to the recently ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the region’s long term upheaval, some states have been able to maintain a national identity better than others. Turkey’s long history has always been intertwined with European affairs, and relative peace has enabled it to seek membership in the European Union (EU). An on-and-off affair, Turkey has been in a sort of diplomatic limbo with regards to EU membership for almost two decades with minimal development. In addition to the potential growth that a country the size of Turkey has to offer, the possibility of politically and economically linking Europe and the Middle East could extend the democratic peace that the EU worked to establish and solidify in Europe. Alternatively, as discussed later in this piece, Turkey’s admission could potentially have the opposite effect and incite the collapse of the EU from within.

Since its inception, the EU has been geared towards expansion. Rising from a small network of Western European nations united in industry, the EU now encompasses 28 member states across the European continent. The routes of expansion at this point are limited, and the two main options are east, towards unstable and corrupt ex-Soviet bloc countries, or south, towards the burgeoning but unpredictable economies of the Middle East and Africa. The latter involves the necessary consideration of Turkey, whose position on the Anatolian peninsula and ancient European and Asian trade routes has made it the source of many debates on continental heritage. To analyze Turkey’s potential as an EU member state, it is essential to consider how Turkish membership would impact the political, economic, and social aspects of the EU.

Preliminarily, Turkey’s acceptance into the EU does not appear to be beneficial to either party. The EU is struggling to maintain its current membership due to the ongoing Eurocrisis as well as a rising political movement away from European unification, popularly referred to as Euroscepticism.[1] Turkey’s growing economy may not be enough to make up for the large poor population it holds, or for the other various EU criteria for admission that it has yet to meet.[2] Additionally, with the EU now struggling, much of the allure that was originally present in joining the stable Union is no longer present.

The formation of the EU has been clear, though not simple. Created in 1952 as an economic community centered on steel and coal, it quickly developed into a more comprehensive and autonomous economic community (Archick & Morelli 150). In 1993, it came to be called the European Union in the form that we recognize today. From the original six member states in Western Europe, it expanded in all directions, eventually making a large eastward expansion in the early 2000s as ex-Soviet bloc states sought realignment and inclusion with Western capitalism (Medvec 66). Although the EU maintains an interest in expansion to this day, its options are fairly limited. The EU has rapidly spread throughout the traditional borders of the European continent, and current candidates include Turkey, Iceland, and those Balkan states that have not already been accepted (Archick & Morelli 156).[3] . These options are east, towards the former Soviet Union, or southeast towards the Middle East and, importantly, Israel (Sobotka et al. 162). Turkey’s geographical position makes its membership very beneficial if the EU seeks a closer relationship with Israel, a state that is already highly entwined with many governments of the EU and already complies with many EU conditions (Sobotka et al. 162).
Turkey was accepted as an official EU candidate in 1999, completing the important first step to opening discussions on acceptance (Archick & Morelli 161). The next step in the process is checking Turkey’s laws for compliance with the EU’s rules and regulations called the acquis communautaire.[4] During this process, Turkey’s progress has been blocked by France, Greece and Cyprus, the latter two over the ongoing division of the island and Turkey’s refusal to recognize the authority of the Greek Cypriot administration[5] (Witkowska 35). The EU placed a ban in 2006 on opening or closing additional chapters of the acquis communautaire until Turkey complies to the agreement made in the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement regarding the relationship with the Greek Cypriot administration (Witkowska 35). Once it complies and opens its ports and airports to vessels from the Greek Cypriot section of Cyprus, discussion may resume, although there is no guarantee of eventual membership (Archick & Morelli 162).[6] If Turkey were to move past this roadblock, the question of the EU’s capacity to manage expansion politically and economically is called into question.

Overall, the political structure of the EU is well equipped to handle the addition of Turkey. Prior to the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the EU was effectively limited to 27 members (Archick & Morelli 152).[7]  The complex network of institutions that make up the supranational government of the EU is prepared to expand in accord to whatever additional population it has to serve (Archick & Morelli 153). This practical readiness aside, member states and their populations feel that the expansion of the Union will dilute the sense of political community and undercut its very purpose (Klingemann & Weldon 458). Additionally, although the EU is often defined politically as the unification of the European continent, the definition of what it means to be a part of Europe has changed a great deal from when the EU was founded. There is precedent for countries and regions not traditionally considered European in joining the EU, including the overseas departments of France and Spain as well as Cyprus, which conventionally belongs to the Middle East (Sobotka et al. 163).

Turkey is already familiar with this kind of process, as it has been in a similar position with western European powers before; during the early discussions planning what would become the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey expressed interest in joining the proceedings but was denied, along with Greece, due to concerns about the impact these countries could have on the formation of the alliance (Gözkaman 85). Considering the fragile, bipolar state of international politics during the Cold War, the creation of such a clear coalition against the Soviet Union’s power mandated a base of stable and secure countries, a list that did not include Greece or Turkey at the time. This exclusion did not last long, however, and in 1952, both Turkey and Greece were admitted into the young NATO (Gözkaman 85).

Though once again Turkey finds itself seeking membership in an international institution, there are several important differences between the goals of NATO and those of the EU. Most importantly, NATO was formed in a time of high international tension; the admission of Turkey and Greece was due to their undeniable strategic importance for the defense of other NATO states in the event of a conventional war with the Soviet bloc (Gözkaman 85). The EU, conversely, is based first and foremost on the preservation of peace both within and without the borders of the Union (Sobotka et al. 161). The strategic allure of the Anatolian peninsula does not play into the decisions of EU expansion, which instead seeks to maintain a safe and stable environment for its member states (Sobotka et al. 162). Due to several longstanding disputes between Greece and Cyprus, two countries already in the EU, the introduction of Turkey could be more disruptive of the system than beneficial (Sobotka et al. 162).

Furthermore, although NATO heavily relies upon the opinion and motivations of the United States, the EU, in general, does not. Still, the expansion of the EU is of interest to American foreign policy, and the impact that new additions could have on EU-US relations has the potential to influence the international politics of all member states. As a whole, the United States government is favorable to EU expansion. In many cases, especially when considering Turkey, the US takes the stance that the EU is moving too slowly to accept new members (Archick & Morelli 148). Many United States administrations have consistently maintained that officially linking Turkey to Europe would solidify an important alliance (Archick & Morelli 170). Expansion of the EU is seen favorably overall by the United States, as a stable and united European continent would be able to direct its energies outward and become a more capable and powerful partner in affecting global change (Archick & Morelli 170).

Since the Eurocrisis, the economic impact of EU expansion is perhaps the most pressing issue on the minds of many EU citizens. With the EU struggling to support all of the current member states, many member states wish to see a stronger economy and level of self-support in Turkey before it is admitted into the Union. Turkey has become increasingly integrated with the EU since 1963, long before it became an official candidate for membership (Witkowska 30). Primarily, this involved the development of a customs union that greatly reduced trade barriers between EU member states and Turkey (Witkowska 32). It is widely believed that this customs union has been the main cause of Turkey’s economic boom and increasing competitiveness in recent years, an advantage that those that seek membership are sure to see as encouragement (Archick & Morelli 163).

Turkey’s economic growth is an important strength that it would bring to the EU. After all, one of the primary economic benefits of membership in the EU is the unified market that all of its members take part in. Although Turkey has been incentivizing foreign direct investment for years, such investment remains a moderate contributor to the national economy (Witkowska 40). Studies have demonstrated that once a new member state joins the EU, bankers perceptions of the benefits of entering the new market change in ways that older member states usually did not expect, leading to a greater degree of cross-border banking and investment than was originally predicted (Jones 56). As the banks pursue both their clients over borders as well as increased profitability, they inevitably prefer the open market of the EU to the obstacles of trade barriers and foreign protocols (Jones 62). Turkey also presents a large population with high expected growth that would almost certainly encourage increased cross-border trade and help its economy grow once within the EU (Jones 62).

Considering all of the reasons already listed above, Turkey has much to offer the economic community of the EU. With a population nearly as large as Germany’s, the EU’s largest, and a fast growing economy in part due to the already established economic and trade connections with the EU, Turkey has lots of potential for bringing growth to the Union (Archick & Morelli 164, Sobotka et al. 162). Despite these strengths, many EU citizens fear that the large population of poor Turks would lead to an influx of Turkish laborers once they were admitted into the Union (Archick & Morelli 164). It is important to remember that these concerns were also expressed prior to the admission of many of the poor Central and Eastern European states that sought membership after the fall of Communism, but in reality the proportion of migrant workers was small and hardly affected the lives or wages of EU citizens (Archick & Morelli 168). This repeated set of issues over time shows that this is less rooted in true economic concerns than it is in a general apprehension that any given group of outsiders will disrupt the community the EU has established within itself.

Aside from politics and economics, the citizens of the EU have concerns about how expansion in general, but specifically to Turkey, would affect the society of the Union. Many feel that Turkey is simply too removed from European culture, while others see any continuation of the Union as a waste of resources. Even though states have been added as recently as 2013 with the addition of Croatia, public enthusiasm for expansion is lagging and, in some states, political parties advocating Euroscepticism have even gained widespread support (Archick & Morelli 149). The ongoing debt crisis and the member states’ division over austerity measures further undermines the confidence average EU citizens have in their supranational government, even as their politicians push integrations and cooperation (Klingemann & Weldon 457).[8]

As hinted at above, much of the social concern over the admission of Turkey into the EU surrounds its large cultural differences. Many European citizens feel that due to differences in ethnicity, language, and religion, Turkey should not be considered part of the European community (Klingemann & Weldon 460). This is part of a well-worn debate on European identity, one that has found no real answers since the EU was created. The belief in a shared cultural legacy, rooted in language, religion, and ethnicity, is important to the strength of a political community (Klingemann & Weldon 460). Though the EU stands for international peace, as the EU becomes more diverse it can no longer claim a single shared culture among its population. The population itself is then at risk of creating a cleavage between individual national interests and larger European interests when they no longer associate themselves with those living in other member states (Klingemann & Weldon 460). There is historical precedent of ethnic groups living peacefully and productively alongside each other today where in the past there were deep social and political divides, such as between Catholics and Protestants all across Europe (Klingemann & Weldon 461). However, the melding required for the populations to cohabit and socialize productively might take longer to coalesce than the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic movements that are currently upsetting the Union.

Another central issue experienced when expansion occurs is the lack of trust older members have for those that are newly admitted, especially when the new countries are poor (Klingemann & Weldon 461). After the expansion into Eastern Europe, there was increased perception of competition for resources and Eastern European immigrants were perceived as taking money and jobs away from established EU citizens (Klingemann & Weldon 461). Whether this is based in simple bigotry and racism or legitimate concerns for the stability of the economic and political structure, the result is the same; average EU citizens are less supportive than ever of the inclusion of Turkey (Archick & Morelli 164).

One issue that would need to be addressed due to its effect on the EU politically, economically, and socially is that of Cyprus. The island, divided since 1974, was admitted into the EU under pressure from Greece in 2004 with almost no progress made towards a solution for the divided nation (Gözkaman 89). Any progress on the Turkish admission into the EU will require Turkey to formally recognize and extend trade to the Greek Cypriot administration governing the other half of the island (Archick & Morelli 162). The stalemate has only worsened the tension between Greece and Turkey, two countries that should be able to cooperate easily since they work together in a security community (Sobotka et al. 162). Beginning in February 2014, progress has been made in the longstanding division when representatives of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leadership made visits to each other’s capitals to begin a just and earnest settlement of the Cypriot issue (Gözkaman 90). If this issue is resolved in the near future, the EU negotiations might be able to continue and some progress could be made on closing the acquis communautaire for the first time in almost a decade (Witkowska 35).

There are many ways that the admission of Turkey would reshape the EU, but how much that would actually affect the political or economic actions of the supranational organization or the daily lives of the population it governs is what must be considered. The political perception of what Europe is or what it is to be European would shift to include the Anatolian peninsula and bring European identities that much closer to the Middle East. The introduction of a large population and a fast growing economy with lots of room for growth and investment could invigorate European bankers to expand and connect. Finally, the population of the EU would have to include those of a new religion, language, and ethnicity that they may not be able to identify with, a divide which would shrink overtime. Perhaps the most important effect Turkish membership would have, even more than those already mentioned, is the revelation that the EU is not as fragile as its population fears, and expansion would not result in the immediate demise of their identity and economy in one blow. With the addition of many ex-Soviet nations, the EU has endured a comparably large expansion before. Granted, no expansion has ever included a single state this large, but those additions did not change the face of the Union in as drastic or harmful way as was originally feared.

The most important question to consider going forward is whether or not Turkey will even wish to pursue EU membership in the future. With the current trade agreements that are already established, the country’s economy is growing well enough that the extra effort of membership may not seem all that enticing (Archick & Morelli 164). Additionally, the changes the EU member states wish to see in Turkish policies before moving forward might actually be unduly discriminatory and harmful towards Turkey for the protection of the perceived risk Turkey presents to the greater EU economic community (Witkowska 40). Overall, Turkey may decide that a European identity is no longer required for it to act as a power player in international policy, and may instead seek a closer, yet unique, partnership with the EU moving forward (Archick & Morelli 165).

Compounding on this decade-old debate, Turkey’s potential position as an EU state does have more weight now than perhaps ever before in its candidateship. One of the most prominent current issues gripping the world is the threat of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This organization has swiftly risen to the forefront of the global consciousness as more nations are affected by its spread throughout the Middle East and its numerous and highly publicized executions of foreign nationals (“Battle for … in Maps”). As one of the dominant states in the region, Turkey will certainly have a notable impact on the eventual outcome of the ISIL crisis.

ISIL has taken control of large swaths of two of Turkey’s neighbors, Iraq and Syria (“Battle for … in Maps”). Though these are the only two states that have territory actively and directly controlled by ISIL, the group also claims to have members working in additional territories several other neighboring countries, including Turkey. Millions of Syrian refugees have crossed the Turkish border to escape the fighting, further linking Turkey to the events (“Battle for … in Maps”). However, many in the Kurdish minority of Turkey suspect that their government has instead found a common ally in ISIL against the Kurds, and there are rumors that Turkey is allowing ISIL to travel freely across its borders with further speculation that Turkey could be actively supplying the terrorist group with weapons and ammunition (Guiton). This is not only a cause for concern for the Kurdish population because as a powerful actor in the Middle East, Turkey’s implicit or explicit support of the terrorist group will be difficult to overcome. Until Turkey can clear itself of any real or rumored connections with ISIL, it is at a disadvantage in all matters of international relations.

Turkey’s threatened position and possible disregard of internal ISIL movements in all probability will be seen as a bar on its consideration for EU membership entirely until this situation is resolved although, as previously discussed, it would not be the first nation with border conflicts or contested territories to enter the EU (Guiton). If the state successfully distances itself from the actions and goals of ISIL, it could easily be the most powerful actor in the region. Additionally, Turkey’s partnership with the EU and NATO has the potential to open the door to a larger international effort if the ISIL threat in Turkey is perceived as a threat to the stability and existence of the EU itself. Though an outright war with ISIL is an unlikely escalation at this point in time, Turkey is likely the key to any future development in the global threat of ISIL.

In conclusion, Turkey’s already long and troubled road to joining the EU is barely closer to its end than it was half a century ago. This is due to several factors, including complex political hurdles, diverse and potentially incompatible cultural identities, and the current terrorist threat of ISIL. Since such a merger has already been concluded successfully, the massive common history between Turkey and the EU could lead to a formal union with a high probability of bridging those gaps. History has demonstrated that this enlargement is feasible, and even potentially beneficial to all parties, despite the malaise of the European public. Additionally, the fate of Cyprus must be decided before Turkey can proceed with membership. In any way this may play out, Turkey will continue to be a close political and economic partner to the EU for the foreseeable future.

Works Cited

Archick, Kristin, and Vincent L. Morelli. “European Union Enlargement.” Current Politics & Economics Of Europe 25.2 (2014): 147-172. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

“Battle for Iraq and Syria in Maps.” BBC News. BBC, 11 Feb. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Gözkaman, Armaǧan. “Turkey And The Common Security And Defence Policy: Can A Privileged Status Ever Be Possible Again?.” International Journal Of Turcologia 9.18 (2014): 83-99. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Guiton, Barney. “‘ISIS Sees Turkey as Its Ally’: Former Islamic State Member Reveals Turkish Army Cooperation.” Newsweek. Newsweek, 7 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Jones, Jason. “Cross-Border Banking In The Expanded European Union.” Eastern European Economics 51.6 (2013): 54-74. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Klingemann, Hans-Dieter, and Steven Weldon. “A Crisis Of Integration? The Development Of Transnational Dyadic Trust In The European Union, 1954-2004.” European Journal Of Political Research 52.4 (2013): 457-482. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Medvec, Stephen E. “The European Union And Expansion To The East: Aspects Of Accession, Problems, And Prospects For The Future.”International Social Science Review 84.1/2 (2009): 66-83. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Sobotka, Martin, Lucie Sobotková, and Zdeněk Řízek. “The Potential Of Enlargement Of The European Union.” Scientific Papers Of The University Of Pardubice. Series D, Faculty Of Economics & Administration 18.24 (2012): 161-173. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

Witkowska, Janina. “Capital Movements Between The European Union And Turkey Within The Integration Processes.” Comparative Economic Research 17.3 (2014): 29-45. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

[1] The Eurocrisis, a portmanteau of European Union and debt crisis, is part of the global recession that began in 2008 in connection to the U.S. subprime mortgage bubble. The EU has yet to recover from the recession as it is still weighed down by the very large national debts that some of the member states accrued, mainly those of Greece, Italy, and Ireland. Due to the unified currency many EU member states share, the extreme debt held by some members is felt by all, stalling economic growth and national GDPs across the continent.
[2] At the time of this publication, only 1 of the necessary 35 criteria to be considered for a vote has been successfully concluded. This concept is further explained later in the paper.
[3] Europe has traditionally been defined as the land north of the Mediterranean Sea and Caucasus Mountains, south of the Baltic and North Seas, east of the Atlantic Ocean, and west of the Ural Mountains. The EU currently extends to all of these geographical borders except for the Caucasus and Ural Mountains.
[4] The acquis communautaire is the full body of EU law which is divided into 35 chapters that separate the laws and court rulings into specific policy areas (e.g. Energy, Environment, or Social Policy). To enter the Union, each chapter must individually be opened and considered against the applicant state’s own laws and policies. Each chapter must be closed by a unanimous vote of the current member states when the candidate has been judged to completely satisfy the criteria of that chapter by all existing member states, and membership cannot be considered until all chapters have been closed. At the time of this publication, only 16 chapters have been opened and only one, the chapter on Science and Research, has been closed. This leaves 34 chapters to be closed before a vote on membership can take place.
[5] The island of Cyprus and its capital city Nicosia have been divided between Turkish and Greek influence since 1973. The natives of the island, referred to as Cypriots, were internally divided along Turkish and Greek lines of heritage with the Greek Cypriots forming the majority. In the early 1970’s violence erupted between the two communities and a series of political upheavals led to Turkey invading the island in defense of their kin. The separate governments are known as Cyprus and Northern Cyprus, representing the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot administrations respectively.
[6] Turkey is unlikely to independently acquiesce to the demands of Greece and, by extension, the EU, as it sees this as an unfair infringement on both their own sovereignty as well as that of the Turkish Cypriots. Without a sincere bilateral agreement with notable action from both sides, the stalemate will continue.
[7] The Treaty of Lisbon played a massive role in creating the EU we know today. Before the Treaty of Lisbon was ratified in 2009, the EU consisted of 27 member states but was still operating under the rules established when there had been only 15 member states. One of the things the new Treaty accomplished was giving the EU Parliament more power and reorganizing Parliament seat distribution to account for a larger member base and provide flexibility for future members.
[8] A key attempt to recover from the Eurocrisis has been far-reaching austerity measures enforced across the EU. Austerity measures consist of extreme budget cuts, the extremity and scope of which have been felt by all EU citizens. This has in turn lead to increasing Euroscepticism and resent for the institution.

Author Bio

2015-02-04 13.21.59Patton Pray is a senior at St. Edward’s University majoring in Global Studies. She has completed two semesters abroad, one in Angers, France and one in Prague, Czech Republic, which allowed her to see multiple perspectives on the European lifestyle and culture. Her studies both at home and abroad have endowed her with a deep interest in European politics, especially the ever changing state of the European Union. After graduation, she is planning on attending grad school for international relations and hoping to return to Europe as soon as possible.

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