Interview with Dr. Beken Saatçioğlu: “Turkey’s chances of membership to the European Union are pretty slim.”

Interview with Dr. Beken Saatçioğlu: “Turkey’s chances of membership to the European Union are pretty slim.”

EU Enlargement and Turkey’s Accession Process Interview Series II

In this second interview of Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey) in regard to EU enlargement process and Turkey’s accession perspective, we have a distinguished scholar from İstanbul Kemerburgaz University, Assist. Prof. Dr. Beken Saatçioğlu. Saatçioğlu kindly shares her views with the readers of Research Turkey on the recent developments in EU enlargement process and Turkey’s accession to the EU.

A Synopsis of the Interview:

“So, first and foremost, the EU will have to resolve its own economic problems before focusing on enlargement”.

“Can the EU really “absorb” a big, Muslim country like Turkey? This question is not discussed in official EU documents but we know it is a highly relevant question, especially in the context of debates on immigration to the EU”.

“So I think it is more realistic to assume that even if the EU decides to admit Turkey one day, it may do so by imposing derogations and/or safeguard clauses on critical EU policies which would make it particularly hard for the Union to absorb Turkey as it is”.

“I think the fact that the (privileged partnership) status has been specially  created for Turkey makes it sufficiently obvious that the EU is particularly reluctant when it comes to Turkey’s membership”.

“In any event though, we know that the Turkish government is extremely critical about the (privileged partnership) status and has so far rejected it at every single occasion”.

“It seems like the EU will have to keep Turkey waiting for many more years to come”.

“I think the obstacles on the way to membership are twofold: On the one hand, the Turkish government has to keep reforming particularly in regards to assuring Turkish citizens’ and especially, political opponents’ fundamental freedoms. On the other, the EU should not block Turkey’s membership path by politicizing the process of membership negotiations which have been partially on hold since 2006”.

“I think the EU has the right to raise the Cyprus condition to Turkey as part of its “good neighbourly relations” criterion […] Rather, what’s wrong and unfair is the fact that the EU only raised this condition to Turkey, and not to the other sides to the Cyprus dispute, namely, Greek Cyprus and Greece as a guarantor state”.

“[…] the implementation of the Additional Protocol represents an obligation of EU membership […] So when seen in this light, Turkey is under the obligation to open its ports to Greek Cyprus to ensure the customs union in practice. However, as it has been the case with the Cyprus condition, this issue too has been handled unfairly by the EU”.

“[…] Turkey’s chances of membership are pretty slim. I think it is best to be realistic about this”.

The Full Text of the Interview:

“Enlargement will not be the EU’s priority after the economic crisis”

To start with the recent events within the EU, we observe that the EU leaders are struggling with the economic crisis in Greece and even there emerged pessimistic debates about the future of the EU. What do you think about the future of the EU enlargement since the EU has been in the middle of crisis? How does the crisis influence the EU enlargement?

To be honest, I don’t think enlargement is the EU’s priority at this particular juncture. The crisis in the Eurozone and economic hardship in several member-states,  like Greece  Spain, Portugal and now especially Cyprus have certainly shifted the EU’s focus away from enlarging further. This  is understandable because the EU is an organization which has invested so much into achieving economic integration at a sound basis. So, first and foremost, the EU will have to resolve its own economic problems before focusing on enlargement. This doesn’t mean the EU cannot “absorb” the memberships of the next countries in the accession queue – Iceland, Croatia and potentially, the Western Balkan applicants. It simply means that it will have to get back on its feet, economically speaking, before moving on to the next step, that is, enlargement.

Referring to the Turkey’s accession process, EU’s integration or absorption capacity is very often expressed by many among the representatives of EU member states and also in Commission reports on Turkey and enlargement. How do you define EU’s absorption capacity and how many more members do you think the EU will be able to integrate?

My view of the EU’s absorption capacity is more or less in line with the European Commission’s official definition of the concept: Absorption capacity is mostly a technical matter; that is to say, it has to do with the implications of new memberships for the EU’s budget, policies and institutions. If enlargement is considered potentially harmful for any of these three, then we say that the EU does not have to capacity to absorb new member-states. However, as we know from Turkey’s dealings with the EU, the cultural/religious dimension is also important for absorption purposes. Can the EU really “absorb” a big, Muslim country like Turkey? This question is not discussed in official EU documents but we know it is a highly relevant question, especially in the context of debates on immigration to the EU.

I don’t think the issue of absorption can be reduced to how many members the EU is considering to integrate. What rather influences the fate of absorption is the economic and budgetary aspects of each new membership. The EU would be able to integrate relatively smoothly the small countries in the Western Balkans. That would be so much easier than integrating Turkey alone, for example.

“Turkey’s potential membership would likely have the same impact on the EU than that of the ten Central and Eastern European countries’ memberships combined, which happened in 2004.”

Do you think that EU’s absorption capacity is overemphasized in the case of Turkey? Is the EU able to integrate Turkey to the EU?

I don’t think it is overemphasized at all. Turkey is the largest country which has ever applied for EU membership, and so the EU has every single right to be concerned about “absorbing” it. As the European Commission itself has noted in its own “impact studies” on Turkey, Turkey’s potential membership would likely have the same impact on the EU than that of the ten Central and Eastern European countries’ memberships combined, which happened in 2004. Yes, Turkey’s economy has been growing and relatively speaking, the country has managed to spare itself from the crisis we observe  in the Eurozone. But this doesn’t mean that it is without any problems. Currently, Turkey’s GDP per capita is still far behind that of Greece for instance and the economy is very much plagued by vast income inequalities and regional disparities. All of these things create serious problems for the EU when it comes to potentially integrating Turkey. So I think it is more realistic to assume that even if the EU decides to admit Turkey one day, it may do so by imposing derogations and/or safeguard clauses on critical EU policies which would make it particularly hard for the Union to absorb Turkey as it is.

The momentum in Turkey’s accession process was lost by 2005 due to a significant decline in the credibility of EU conditionality, referring to the privileged partnership debate among member states and increasing application of EU conditionality on the basis of other criteria than the political criteria for accession. What do you think about the debate on privileged partnership for Turkey? Is the EU’s reluctance special to the Turkey’s accession process or are there any other cases of enlargement signifying EU’s reluctance to enlarge as was in the case of Turkey?

Privileged partnership status has not been mentioned before to any EU candidate other than Turkey. It is a status which was designed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Christian Democrats back in 2004, and also supported by Austria and France’s Sarkozy. These people justified the initiative by arguing that a privileged partnership between the EU and Turkey is far better than an underprivileged EU membership – that is, second-class EU membership status – for Turkey.  I think the fact that the status has been specially  created for Turkey makes it sufficiently obvious that the EU is particularly reluctant when it comes to Turkey’s membership.

If not full membership, what options do you think are there? Do you think could there be differentiated layers of EU membership?

Obviously, as I just mentioned, there is the status of privileged partnership which falls somewhere between associate EU membership (which Turkey has since 1964 as a result of its Ankara Agreement with the EU) and full membership. But the status has not been offered before to any EU candidate and so it is something which is rather envisaged in theory at this point. We still don’t know exactly what it looks like; so it is hard to say what kind of differentiated membership layer it would represent. In any event though, we know that the Turkish government is extremely critical about the status and has so far rejected it at every single occasion. So even if it the EU defines it precisely and offers it to Turkey one day, it will simply not be accepted by the government and therefore it cannot be viewed as an option, in my opinion.

Do you think there is any possibility or will of the EU to strengthen its credibility in Turkey’s accession process or is the loss of momentum a relief for the EU, which seems to be struggling how to deal with Turkey as a candidate for EU membership?

At this point, I must say I’m rather pessimistic about the possibility of any reversal in the EU’s handling of Turkey’s membership issue. Ultimately, integrating Turkey as a member-state represents a huge cost for the EU, plus there is so much opposition to Turkey’s admission among the European public. Among all candidates, Turkey has traditionally been the least supported one. So I think the trends speak for themselves: It seems like the EU will have to keep Turkey waiting for many more years to come. This is more realistic  than any other alternative happening when it comes to the EU’s Turkey policy.

“On the one hand, the Turkish government has to keep reforming particularly in regards to assuring Turkish citizens’ and especially, political opponents’ fundamental freedoms. On the other, the EU should not block Turkey’s membership path by politicizing the process of membership negotiations which have been partially on hold since 2006.”

How do you evaluate Turkey’s compliance performance with regard to the Copenhagen and acquis criteria? And what do you think as the biggest obstacle in front of Turkey’s EU membership?

This is a very big and important question. Turkey has come a long way in meeting the Copenhagen criteria – even Turkey’s critics within the EU would admit this much. Since it earned official EU candidacy in 1999, Turkey has achieved key reforms, at least legislatively, especially concerning democratization which is the number one condition for EU membership. However, much more remains to be done. I think the obstacles on the way to membership are twofold: On the one hand, the Turkish government has to keep reforming particularly in regards to assuring Turkish citizens’ and especially, political opponents’ fundamental freedoms. On the other, the EU should not block Turkey’s membership path by politicizing the process of membership negotiations which have been partially on hold since 2006.

By 2006, Cyprus issue came to scene as the most important stumbling block for Turkey’s accession to the EU. How do you evaluate the approach of the EU on Cyprus issue and the settlement of the dispute in the island as a precondition for Turkey’s accession to the EU? Do you think that this is an example of the application of EU conditionality on the basis of an informal criterion – outside the formal/technical political criteria?

I think the EU has the right to raise the Cyprus condition to Turkey as part of its “good neighbourly relations” criterion. Yes, the issue is not related to the EU’s democracy condition as defined in Copenhagen back in 1993. But it is relevant in the context of the EU’s expectation of good neighbourly ties among its potential member-states and in that sense, the condition is not entirely “informal”. Rather, what’s wrong and unfair is the fact that the EU only raised this condition to Turkey, and not to the other sides to the Cyprus dispute, namely, Greek Cyprus and Greece as a guarantor state. Conflicts are phenomena which by nature involve more than one state. And so pushing only one side and not the others on this issue is not fair. That is why the Cyprus condition has been criticized so much in Turkey. In May 2004, the EU offered Greek Cyprus membership and this happened despite the fact that Greek Cypriots had rejected the Annan Plan.  This triggered perceptions of EU unfairness within the Turkish government and thus increased criticisms about the Cyprus condition.

“the EU has not held its promise and as long as it does not develop a constructive approach regarding the situation of Turkish Cypriots, Turkey can legitimately hold off on opening its ports to Greek Cyprus, in my opinion.”

What about the partial freeze of EU accession negotiations with Turkey due to the EU’s insistence on the implementation of Additional Protocol, comprising all new members including the Republic of Cyprus, and Turkey’s refusal to do so? Specifically related to the Cyprus issue, does this signify an unfair approach by the EU, as was portrayed by many in Turkey, or is it simply an obligation of Turkey as a candidate country on the basis of the recognition of all member states, which is a primary rule of the EU?

I will say that yes, technically, the implementation of the Additional Protocol represents an obligation of EU membership. Turkey has customs union with the EU since 1996 and so when new countries join the Union, it is legally under the obligation  of extending the customs union to the newcomers. The obligations of EU membership include all aspects relating to the process of European integration which has been going on since the 1950s, particularly and in this case, the single market and free movement of goods which requires freedom of transport. So when seen in this light, Turkey is under the obligation to open its ports to Greek Cyprus to ensure the customs union in practice. However, as it has been the case with the Cyprus condition, this issue too has been handled unfairly by the EU. Turkey signed the Additional Protocol to the Ankara agreement (extending the customs union to Greek Cyprus) in July 2005 under the condition that the EU would take steps to end the economic isolation of Turkish Cyprus. But the EU has not held its promise and as long as it does not develop a constructive approach regarding the situation of Turkish Cypriots, Turkey can legitimately hold off on opening its ports to Greek Cyprus, in my opinion.

Considering both  Turkey’s compliance trend and EU-related issues, such as absorption capacity, do you think that Turkey has a chance to become an EU member state one day?

My personal opinion is that considering all of the above, Turkey’s chances of membership are pretty slim. I think it is best to be realistic about this. Even if Turkey perfectly fulfils the conditions of membership one day, there is still no guarantee of membership, given the EU’s reservations about it. Regardless of the degree of Turkey’s compliance, membership is ultimately the EU’s decision and it is a political decision since it has to be approved by all existing EU member-states unanimously. So it can always be blocked within the Union  based upon member-states’ political considerations.

Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts on the recent developments in the EU enlargement and particularly on Turkey’s accession process. 

© 2013 Research Turkey. All rights reserved. This publication cannot be printed, reproduced, or copied without referencing the original source.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Research Turkey (May, 2013), “Interview with Dr. Beken Saatçioğlu: “Turkey’s chances of membership to the European Union are pretty slim.””, Vol. II, Issue 3, pp.47-53, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=3268)


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