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Turkey’s Difficult Entry into the European Union

The borders of Europe have always been very vaguely defined.  With the Greeks, anything outside of their domain was considered barbaric and uncivilized, with murderous brutes to the North and hedonists to the East.  With the expansion of Europe to include all of Christendom, new frontiers were formed, with the Eastern-most part of Europe always being considered the “periphery.”  This periphery was considered distinct from Asia, but at the same time, was not fully European compared with its Western counterparts.


The various states of the Balkans, Greece, and Russia have this distinction, and as Michael Hertzfeld describes in his article “The European Self,” this distinction can generate both resentment at being viewed as a “second class” European nation and internal division in the country over whether citizens should change their behavior in order to appear more European (Pagden 2007: 145-170).

Chase Cavanaugh is a graduate student at Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, University of Kentucky. He previously studies at University of Notre Dame and Sciences-Po in Paris. cavanaugh0610@gmail.com

This type of distinction is divisive enough with nations that are still geographically part of continental Europe but it is even more difficult for a nation to consider itself part of Europe if it is mostly Asian, has a different majority religion and ethnicity, and has been a military adversary of Western Europe for hundreds of years.  It is in this situation that Turkey seeks to join the European Union.  With these vast differences, EU member states believe that Turkey’s membership could fundamentally change the identity of Europe, thus it is no surprise that they are reluctant to admit Turkey as a member.  This paper seeks to analyze what exactly are the factors keeping Turkey from being accepted as a member nation in the European Union by Europe. It shall take a look at political, social, and cultural factors.

Before going into Turkey’s specific circumstances, it is important to note that historically, Islamic nations and Islam itself have been considered as outsiders and even invaders in the historical conception of Europe.  Europeans have historically seen the Ottoman Empire, precursor to the Modern Turkish state, as a military threat.  An example is the conquest of the Constantinople by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, which brought an end to the Byzantine Empire.  With further expansion, the Empire conquered Greece and other areas of Eastern Europe (such as Bosnia) and continued with the foundation of the Muslim state of al-Andalus (southern Spain).  Though it existed as an independent state for over 700 years, constant attacks were launched by the nations of Christendom, ending in their expulsion from the continent during the Spanish Reconquista. Furthermore, though the Islamic world had a great influence on the development of European science, technology, and philosophy (through importation of ideas from the East and the circulation of Classical texts), it is relegated to the status of a “carrier civilization” to Europe, rather than being a part of European identity (in development, and culturally in the previously occupied areas). Even modern Muslim immigrants who are officially European citizens are considered as outsiders in their respective nations. As Talal Asad describes in “Muslims and European Identity,” these Muslims have “Asian” origins, and are therefore considered as a minority group.  Worse, they can’t elevate themselves above this discrimination because “true” Europeanness comes from having an ethnic and racial tie to that particular nation state (Pagden 2007:209-227).

With this conception of Muslims as both “Asian outsiders” and “hostile invaders”, it is no surprise that there is resistance to Turkey joining the European Union.  However, this is not the sole factor of this resistance.  There are also a number of political and cultural factors working against Turkey as well.

Politically, there are several reasons that Turkey is finding it difficult to enter the European Union.  They mainly have to do with the balance of power in Europe, and more importantly, a series of obligations that new member nations must satisfy, known as the “Copenhagen Criteria” (European Commission: 2010).  The first criterion states that candidate countries must have achieved “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities.”  Turkey already has difficulties with several parts of this criterion, beginning with stability.

In Turkish politics, the army has a privileged place in the state power structure, seen as heritors and defenders of the secular “Kemalist” state (referred to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder and the first President of the Turkish Republic). Historically, they have launched several coups against the government when they felt that it has been threatened by parties that were either too Islamist, or did not adequately conform to Ataturk’s ideology.  Their first coup occurred in 1960, with the removal of all officials of the Democratic Party.  In 1971, the army acted again, forcing conservative Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel to resign and declaring martial law.  Their last major intervention was in 1980, when generals took over the Turkish government among conflict between Left and Right-wing student activists (the army was worried that such infighting would start a civil war).  Though there has been no major coup since 1980, the army has forced an Islamist coalition in 1997 led by Necmettin Erbakan to resign, as they felt he was leading the country toward “increasingly religious rule” (Telegraph, 2007).   The constant threat of coups by the military is not conducive to a stable democratic regime and hurts Turkey’s image as a stable democracy.  It is also ironic that the army is so willing to intervene in the name of Kemalist ideology, as Ataturk himself opposed any intervention by the armed forces in the affairs of the state (Rouleau 2000: 104).

In addition, there have been several complaints that Turkey is not respectful of human rights, based upon the past treatment of Armenians during end of the World War I. Based upon suspicions that they would defect to the enemy (in this case, the Russians), army officers allegedly received orders to begin relocating the Armenians to the Eastern border of modern Turkey. Several EU member nations in addition to Armenian communities in Europe and the United States have called upon Turkey to recognize this action as “genocide” of the Armenian people, due to the casualties during the relocation process.  Turkey has not recognized it as such and this is viewed as unfavorable to their candidacy in the EU.

To Turkey’s credit however, it would be difficult to make such a declaration with the current foreign relations it has with Armenia.  Apart from the past circumstance of the so-called “genocide”, Turkey is attempting to support its fellow “Turkic brothers” in Azerbaijan, Armenia’s eastern neighbor, which is involved in a territorial dispute over a disputed region in Western Azerbaijan known as Nagorno-Karabakh.  Azerbaijan’s conflict has been raging since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  In response to Armenia’s role in the conflict, Turkey has an economic blockade with Armenia, forbidding trade between the two countries from flowing across each other’s borders.  With these combined effect of these two circumstances on Turkish opinion of Armenia, it would be very difficult for the Turkish government to gather the political capital necessary for such recognition.  Thus although they could satisfy Europe by recognizing their past actions as a so-called “genocide”, it would not be a practical or expedient solution for Turkey itself.

There has also been criticism by the European Union that, according to the previously mentioned part of the Copenhagen Criteria, Turkey hasn’t adequately ensured the rights of freedom of expression.  Since the founding of Turkey, the ruling elite and the military have held Ataturk in high regard and his ideology of Kemalism is key to the structure of the modern Turkish Republic.  However, this veneration of Ataturk has been criticized by some as a cult of personality, particularly regarding freedom of speech.  Not only has the army intervened in political affairs against politicians who are either too Islamist or not supportive enough toward Ataturk’s legacy, but criticism of Ataturk is forbidden in the Turkish constitution.  The preamble of the constitution reads “No protection will be extended to thoughts or opinions contrary to Turkish national interests, the principle of the indivisibility of Turkey, or to Turkish historical and moral values, or to the nationalism, principles, reforms, and modernity of Ataturk (Rouleau 2000: 107).”  In addition, article 130 of the Turkish constitution states that “scientific research or publications” not being absolutely compliant with the values outlined in the preamble are to be banned by university rectors.  This article is used by the Turkish Council of Higher Education in some cases to silence professors who appear to be “ideologically dissident,” such as sociologist Ismail Besikci, who was ousted from his position and imprisoned for allegedly having pro-Kurdish sympathies.  Examples such as this show up in the Turkish penal code and form a very worrying message the Turkey, even if it becomes a member of the European Union, will not respect the free-speech rights of its citizens who are not ardent supporters of Kemalist ideology (Rouleau 107-108).  There are signs that such action is weakening, as a “more Islamic” party, the AK party, is currently in power and the army has not gotten itself involved, but it will take time if Turkey is to get past the reputation of an interventionist army.

Economy also concerns member nations of the European Union.  According to the second of the Copenhagen Criteria, the European Commission states that candidate countries must possess a stable market economy (European Commission 2010).  For the member nations of the European Union, there is reserved apprehension of Turkey joining because of a somewhat unstable economy and fear of mass emigration, as witnessed by previous experiences in Turkish guest worker programs.  Turkish guest workers began to come to Western Europe starting in 1960, as Turkey’s constitution had just guaranteed the right of its citizens to acquire a passport and travel abroad (Teitelbaum and Martin 2003: 102).  Germany had particular interest in foreign workers, as their industries were expanding and due to construction of the Berlin Wall, the supply of East German migrants had all but dried up.  In October 1961, they signed a bilateral labor agreement with Turkey, which allowed workers to come to Germany and work under one year permits.  The plan was very popular in Turkey, initially attracting nine thousand workers in 1961 and rising quickly to 136,000 in 1973 (Teitelbaum and Martin 2003: 103).   This initial interest also pleased the Germans, as they would be able to get a cheap labor force to staff their industries and also keep unemployment low by having a constant rotating supply of guest workers.

The problem came with the plan’s implementation in economic recessions.  It was expected for Turkish families to return to their homeland upon dismissal from their jobs, so that employment levels could be kept low.  However, this turned out to go against the interests of both the workers and German factory owners.  Workers did not want to return home, as by working in Germany, they would be able to earn eight to ten times the wages they could possibly receive back in Turkey.  Likewise, for the factory owners, there was little incentive to force worker rotation, because they would be sending trained laborers home and be forced to find and hire untrained replacements.  Thus the guest workers generally did not return home, but their numbers increased greatly due to the arrival of their families.  In the original bilateral agreement, companies could renew their guest worker permits for up to two years, which also permitted the dependent families of the guest workers to come to Germany.  Furthermore, if the workers were in Germany for five years, they could switch employers and remain in Germany even if they had lost their jobs (Teitelbaum and Martin 2003:103).  Even after this guest program stopped, Turks continued to immigrate to Germany either under asylum, “family unification” programs, or through illegal means. Because of these various factors, the employment rate dropped dramatically among foreigners in Germany from 66% in the early ’70’s to a lowly 33% only twenty years later.

From the experience of the guest worker programs, Germany does not want Turkey to become part of the EU due to a fear of mass emigration, which could destabilize the economy and greatly raise the unemployment rate.  This opinion is shared by other countries who worry that through such programs, their unemployment situations could get worse, and that with a foreign community of Muslims, there would be difficulties with integration and assimilation (such as is the case in France). In addition, the EU member nations worry about Turkey joining the European union from a fiscal standpoint.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Turkey would be the poorest EU member nation, with a GDP of only $2100 in 2001, compared with the average in the EU of $21,000  (It should be noted however that these amounts are during 2001, one of Turkey’s worst economic crises; the current GDP per capita is $11,200 (CIA World Factbook: 2010) (Teitelbaum and Martin 2003:103)). Furthermore, approximately 35% of Turkey’s workers are employed in agricultural sectors.   If Turkey joined the EU, many of these unskilled workers could immigrate off the farms of Anatolia into Western Europe.  To rich EU nations such as Germany and France, the worry is that these unskilled workers could crowd out the job market.  Also, Turkey has had a very unstable economy in the past, which shrunk by 6% in 1994, expanded by 6% per year from 1995-1997, and shrunk again by 10% in 2001, only becoming stabilized in 2002 with an emergency loan of $16 billion from the International Monetary Fund. With this past fluctuation in its economy, an argument can be made that if Turkey was admitted as a full member of the European Union, the overall economic welfare of EU nations could suffer.  However, the fear of mass immigration into Europe is not very well founded, as it is standard procedure for new members of the European Union to have restrictions on travel between them and the rest of Europe for several years before granting full open borders.

In order to get more information about the relationship Turks have with religion in government, Turks views on the EU, and any other cultural factors that would repel Europe from accepting Turkey into the EU, I contacted an acquaintance that I had met on a previous excursion to the country as part of an interfaith dialogue and culture trip.  The contact, who shall be cited as “Istanbul” in this paper, conducted an interview with me via e-mail and over the phone, providing an insider perspective.

During my initial research, I noticed that there are significant differences between religious identity and role of religion in public life between the EU and Turkey.  Although there is variety in religious presence in the public sphere in the EU, the EU is generally portrayed as a secular bastion of the modern world.  In order to modernize Turkey, Ataturk adapted various secular principles, particularly those of France, when founding the modern Turkish Republic.  However, ever since its establishment, there has been debate over just what the role of Islam consists of in Turkish society.  As discussed above, there have been several coups against the government for being too “Islamic,” restrictions placed upon free speech in order to preserve Ataturk’s legacy, and citizens and politicians have been imprisoned for anything that isn’t ardently secular.  More disconcertingly, even religious officials preaching modern values have been sanctioned, a good example being a Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. An Islamic moderate, Gülen condemns terrorism, preaches that Muslims as a community have a “duty of service” to the common good of Muslims and non-Muslims, and encourages interfaith dialogue between Muslims and the other Abrahamic faiths.  Yet even with this progressive theology, Gülen was tried in abstentia (he was in the United States seeking medical care at the time) in 2000 under charges of “attempts to establish an Islamic dictatorship” (Rouleau 2000:108), however all charges were dropped by the court in 2006.

In my correspondences with Istanbul, I discovered that while secularism is indeed a large force in Turkish politics, it does not exclude religion from Turkish life.  Religion has always been important to Turks, and although not all of them are practicing Muslims, most have some form of religious belief, the majority of them Sunni Muslims.  However, the influence of religious expression in public life has waxed and waned over time depending on who controlled the government.  When Ataturk instituted modernizations in Turkey, he did so via a top-down enforcement model, such as abolishing the caliphate and converting many of the state-run mosques and religious orders of the Ottoman Empire into museums.  Other reforms were put in place to make Turkey appear more modern in the eyes of Europe, such as banning the wearing of the Fez.  However, the Turkish people did not internalize all of these reforms, but practiced them because it was the law.  There are moderate secularists in Turkey now, mostly associated with the Social Democratic Party who don’t want religion formally tied to government, yet respect the rights of religious practice and don’t favor army involvement in politics.  When it comes to the European Union, this shifting idea of acceptable religion in the public sphere is not really something holding Turkey back. Rather, this cultural factor contributes to the instability of the government, with tensions between the religious and the secularists, a political criterion.

The true complicating cultural factor in Turkey’s candidacy for the EU is their conception of national identity, which differs somewhat from other Western European nations.  It dates back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which fractured due to its many different ethnic groups. The various minor ethnic and religious groups within the Empire started nationalistic movements contributing to the decline in central authority and the eventual collapse of the Ottomans.   In order to avoid this fate with Turkey, Ataturk made sure to unite the people of Turkey under a single Turkish nationality (he couldn’t unite them under religion because of the smaller religious communities of Christians and Jews, as well as different Muslim sects).  Ironically, if one were to immigrate to Turkey and become a citizen, they would be considered part of the Turkish nationality, even if they weren’t born of a Turkish ethnicity (Istanbul, 2010).

While this ethnic identification works well for giving Turks a sense of nationhood, it has caused trouble with the E.U. because of how each group defines minorities.  The European Union has complained to Turkey that it does not ensure the minority rights of the non-Turks inside of its borders.  For Turkey, EU is referring to the armed Kurdish nationalist militia (referred to as PKK, or the “Kurdistan Workers` Party”) launching attacks to the Turkish and Kurdish civilians mostly in the Eastern and Southeastern Turkey, in an attempt to form their own nation in a region between Turkey, Iraq and Armenia.  On the other hand, the Turks do not view the Kurds as a minority group, because according to the Treaty of Lausanne (a treaty signed at the end of World War I establishing the modern Turkish Republic), minorities are defined as those who are of a minority religion, not a minority ethnic group.  As a result, the Turks view this demand of minority rights for the Kurds, who to the Turks are part of the Turkish nation as Turkish citizens, as a double standard (Istanbul, 2010).  This difference in the conception and treatment of minorities leads to criticisms by the EU that Turkey does not respect the rights of its minority citizens.  The Turks respond that these independent groups are Turks and that if they were recognized as a separate minority group, they would threaten national unity (Istanbul, 2010).  This is a response to the nationalization that occurred after the Ottoman Empire’s war in the Balkans.  After the Ottomans lost on this front in the First World War, the formerly Ottoman subjects of Greeks, Armenians, etc. decided to form nation-states.  In Turkey’s War for Independence, there were many migrations, voluntary and coerced, of Balkan communities to the West and Muslims to the East.  Thus in Turkey’s formation, while it still retained some of these multi-ethnic groups that were present during the Ottoman Empire, their presence was greatly reduced, and Turkey became over 98% Muslim.  With these historical circumstances, it is understandable why Turkey would state that these groups threaten national unity (Silverstein 2003: 506-507).

Since this issue of minority definition is not limited to Kurds, but can also consist of other formerly Ottoman communities living in Turkey, such as Armenians and Greeks, and there is such a difference in Europe and Turkey’s views on the subject, I believe that this is the biggest reason Turkey is having trouble joining the EU.

When it comes to Turkish opinions on joining the European Union, the population is almost evenly split.  According to a recent poll, about 55.3% of Turks are in favor of joining the European Union.  The main Turkish groups opposing entry are Secularists (who believe that the EU will provide more religious rights, therefore expanding religion’s presence in everyday life), nationalists (who are already afraid of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews living in Turkey, and with entry in the EU, could possibly petition for their own nations), and radical Islamists (who view Europe as a Christian threat to Islam in Turkey).  However, these groups only comprise about 40% of the Turkish population.   The rest of the Turks are more favorable to the European Union, but public opinion shifts greatly whenever there is an important political development, such as a report by Brussels criticizing Turkey (Istanbul, 2010).

Overall, Turkey still has a while before it will be accepted as a member of the European Union.  Europe is concerned with the ability of the Turkish government to maintain stability and protect the basic rights of its citizens and minorities.  Certain nations are also somewhat apprehensive about the economic effects of Turkey joining the European Union.  This is in addition to overcoming the attitude of Muslims as fundamentally outside of what it means to be European.  There are signs that these factors are changing; Turkey has a “more Islamic” party in power, and the army has not interfered, and Western European nations such as France are starting to recognize that Muslims, with their ever-increasing immigration, are going to become significant parts of their population.  However, this will all take time.  Until then, these political and economic concerns, as well as basic concerns over identity, will hinder Turkey from being fully accepted as part of Europe.  The conception of European identity must first evolve to accommodate Turkey.


Works Cited


Asad, Talal.

2007 Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?

in The Idea of Europe. Anthony Pagden, ed. pp. 208-228. New York: Cambridge University Press


European Commission.

2010. Accession Criteria


Accessed 25 April 2010


Anderson, Perry

2008   Kemalism.

London Review of Books. 30(17): pp. 3-12


Teitelbaum, Michael S. with Phillip L. Martin

2003  Is Turkey Ready for Europe?

Foreign Affairs 82(3): pp. 97-111


Rouleau, Eric

2000  Turkey’s Dream of Democracy

Foreign Affairs 79(6): pp. 100-114


Silverstein, Brian

2003  Islam and Modernity in Turkey: Power, Tradition, and Historicity in the Provinces of the Muslim World.

Anthropological Quarterly 76(3): pp. 497-517



2007  A history of Turkish Coups


Accessed 25 April, 2010


CIA-The World Factbook

2010  Turkey


Accessed 25 April 2010

Personal Interview with “Istanbul” 16 April 2010

  • February 7, 2021