Turkey’s EU accession after Brexit: what prospects?

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Turkey’s EU accession after Brexit: what prospects?


In its first five years in office, AKP’s commitment to democratisation led the party to implement a vast programme of reforms in line with the Copenhagen criteria that enabled Turkey to open formal accession negotiations with the EU in October 2005. After 2007, the pace of reforms slowed down and authoritarian trends became more visible, including occupation of public office by AKP members, instrumentalisation of the judiciary, censorship, arrest of journalists, and moves towards a presidential system. The violent crackdown on the 2013 Gezi protests laid bare how reforms have reversed, as has the re-emergence of the Kurdish issue. As a result, since 2010 only one chapter has been opened, in the context of the EU-Turkey refugee deal. In this context, this article argues that Brexit may be the necessary boost to Turkey’s accession process, if AKP returns to the path of democratic reforms.


The close victory of Brexit[1] in the 23 June 2016 referendum has come as a shock to the EU countries. The far right, on the other hand, has lauded the results as yet another nail in the coffin of a debilitated EU (Guardian 2016a). This indeed seems to be the moment to re-found the EU, as Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi have acknowledged in a recent summit in Ventotene, in Italy, the birthplace of the European project (Guardian 2016b). Hollande defended a new thrust for the EU, on three fronts (ABC 2016). The first should be security, with the protection of the external borders of the EU; Hollande aimed at the creation of a common coast guard. Secondly, the French President mentioned the need for strengthening defence. And the third one is boosting the economic growth. At the Bratislava summit, on 16 September 2016, the European leaders agreed to a “roadmap” that envisions full commitment to those three fronts, including the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees (European Council 2016a). These moves on the part of the biggest EU countries reveal a reinforced will to pursue European integration that could, in the future, benefit Turkey, an argument I will explain further ahead.

Much of the debate on the British referendum centred on opposition to Turkey becoming a member of the EU. In fact, many in the Brexit camp portrayed Turkey’s accession as boosting the inflow of Turkish nationals and criminals in the UK, with arguments verging on racism and xenophobia (see Independent 2016a). The debate has opened yet another fissure between Turkish leadership and the EU. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and pro-AKP media like Yeni Şafak hastily reacted by decrying the hypocritical behaviour of European leaders, who, according to the Turkish President, never intended to accept Turkey into the European bloc (Al Monitor 2016a). Erdoğan even mentioned the possibility of holding a similar referendum in Turkey to decide on the continuation of the accession process (Ibid).

The Brexit victory has been seen as harming Turkey’s prospects for EU accession (Al Monitor 2016b). On the one hand, the UK was the most powerful supporter of Turkey’s accession and thus the only country that could counter Germany’s doubts. On the other hand, in the face of previous crises, the EU has tended to turn inward and centre on its own problems. Third, the fear that the referendum results might have sparked growing racism and Islamophobia and thus secessionist campaigns in other EU member states are not unfounded. The far right continues to grow at a scarily fast pace, particularly in Northern and Central Europe.

As mentioned before, this need not be the case. On 30 June, the EU took a step further by opening chapter 33, on financial and budgetary provisions (Hürriyet Daily News 2016). Although this had been arranged in the context of the refugee deal with Turkey, the date is very relevant, a week following the results of the British referendum. In my view, if Turkey has the will to retake the path of reforms it interrupted after 2007, Brexit may provide just the perfect boost the country needed. From the point of view of the EU, Turkey’s accession would mean that the 27-bloc has not lost momentum and is still able to function as a pole of attraction and as a promoter of human rights, democracy and economic development. Additionally, while the full impact of Brexit is still to be discerned, current prospects seem to bring a renovated vigour to the European project. In fact, deep divisions and doubts on Brexit in the UK are stalling the exit negotiations. While many UK politicians do not want to proceed with it, the economic impact is beginning to take its toll on the country, with the Lira plunging in the markets and consumer confidence dropping (Independent 2016b) for fear of a “hard” Brexit, which means losing access to the single market. Moreover, British banks are preparing to move to EU countries and there are fears that big companies will follow suit (Politico.eu 2016a; The Guardian 2016c). The prospects of an economic disaster following Brexit may prove to be the EU’s greatest life breath following years of Euroscepticism in the wake of the rampant disastrous effects of the 2008 financial crisis.

On the other hand, at the time of this writing, UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has pledged the country’s support for Turkey’s accession to the EU. After the propaganda for the national campaign for the referendum, Brexit campaigners have returned to politics as usual and are again placing UK’s interests at the front (Independent 2016c).

As things stand now, Brexit has caused a major shift in the European balance of power. In this respect, Turkey’s role has been enhanced, given its geopolitical location and also in the context of the major themes than dominate EU’s security agenda: the refugees (and Syria) and the Ukraine. The refugee deal between Turkey and the EU, whereby Turkey accepts the return of irregular migrants who do not need international protection crossing from Turkey into Greek islands, has given Ankara great leverage in negotiating with the EU. In fact, Ankara secured the acceleration of visa liberalisation, an upgrading of the customs union and the opening of chapter 33 (European Council 2016b).

The 15 July attempted coup, on the other hand, has seemed to bring additional urgency to integrate Turkey into the EU, in the eyes of Brussels officials. The EU’s management of the situation and criticism of AKP’s dealing with the coup – namely the ensuing purges in the state apparatus (BBC 2016) – have been vigorously criticised by Turkey (Business Insider 2016), as Ankara tilted towards a rapprochement with Russia and Iran. Erdoğan’s leverage seemed to increase afterwards. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt wrote an article in early August 2016 on Politico.eu asking if Brussels “was asleep or just ignorant” (Politico.eu 2016b), urging EU leaders to support the country. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini has also backed down on her criticism, urging a “positive dialogue” with Turkey (Hürriyet Daily News 2016b).

On the other hand, as Galip Dalay argues, the UK’s future relations and agreement with the EU can set the tone for an improved partnership between the EU and Turkey (Al Jazeera 2016), while full accession does not materialise. The idea of privileged partnership would thus be implemented for both countries, making it more attractive in the eyes of Ankara.

All things considered, I believe Brexit has not changed Turkey’s prospects for accession, which are, in my view, completely dependent on the Turkish elite’s commitment to implementing democratic reforms. In particular, AKP’s commitment will be paramount, as the dominant party in Turkey. As other European accession processes, namely Southern and Central European countries, have demonstrated, elite commitment to democracy and reforms are the main determinants (see Schimmelfennig, Engert and Knobel 2006). After the Gezi protests and particularly in the wake of the 15 July attempted coup and the ongoing purges in the state apparatus and the media, AKP’s commitment to democratic reforms seems to have almost fully disappeared. As a consequence, EU accession does not appear to come in a near future.

Dr. Isabel David

Please cite this publication as follows:

David, I. (November, 2016), “Turkey’s EU accession after Brexit: what prospects?”, Vol. V, Issue 11, pp.52 – 58, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (http://researchturkey.org/?p=13068)


Al Jazeera. 2016. “Brexit may be a good thing for Turkey”. 12 July. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/07/brexit-good-turkey-160711124421322.html.

Al Monitor. 2016a. “Erdogan gloats over Brexit”. 28 June. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/06/turkey-britain-european-union-brexit-erdogan.html.

Al Monitor. 2016b. “Why Brexit makes life harder for Turkey”. 30 June. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/06/turkey-brexit-makes-life-harder-for-turks.html.

ABC. 2016. “Brexit: Europe’s three big leaders Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Matteo Renzi insist EU not finished”. 22 August. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-23/big-three-leaders-insist-eu-not-finished-after-brexit/7775844.

BBC. 2016. “Turkey attempted coup: EU says measures ‘unacceptable’”. 21 July. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36861154.

Business Insider. 2016. “The West ‘contradicts the values it is defending’: Erdogan blasts the international response to the Turkey coup”. 8 August. http://www.businessinsider.com/erdogan-blasts-international-response-to-turkey-coup-refugee-crisis-2016-8.

European Council. 2016a. “Bratislava Declaration and roadmap”. 16 September. http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/09/16-bratislava-declaration-and-roadmap/.

European Council. 2016b. “EU-Turkey statement, 18 March 2016”. 18 March. http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2016/03/18-eu-turkey-statement/.

Hürriyet Daily News. 2016a. “A new UK, a new EU and Turkey”. 25 June. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/a-new-uk-a-new-eu-and-turkey.aspx?PageID=238&NID=100883&NewsCatID=409.

Hürriyet Daily News. 2016b. “Mogherini calls for ‘positive dialogue’ with Turkey”. 14 September. http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/mogherini-calls-for-positive-dialogue-with-turkey.aspx?pageID=238&nid=103911

Independent. 2016a. “EU referendum: Vote Leave faces criticism over Turkey ‘criminals’ claim”. 21 May. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-vote-leave-faces-criticism-over-turkey-criminals-claim-a7041876.html

Independent. 2016b. “Brexit: Confidence in UK’s economic future drops rapidly after pound value crash”. 28 October. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/brexit-consumer-confidence-uk-economy-after-pound-value-crash-a7383771.html.

Independent. 2016c. “Boris Johnson says the UK will support Turkey’s bid to join EU despite Brexit vote”. 27 September. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/boris-johnson-uk-support-turkey-ankara-bid-to-join-eu-despite-brexit-washing-machine-a7332651.html.

Politico.eu. 2016a. “In face of Brexit, UK banking chief proposes dialing down pressure on banks”. 26 October. http://www.politico.eu/article/in-face-of-brexit-uk-banking-chief-proposes-dialing-down-pressure-on-banks/

Politico.eu. 2016b. “Europe, Stand up for Erdogan”. 2 August. http://www.politico.eu/article/europe-stand-up-for-erdogan-brussels-greece-coup-european-union/.

Schimmelfennig, Frank, Stefan Engert, and Heiko Knobel. 2006. International Socialisation in Europe. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

The Guardian. 2016a. “European far right hails Brexit vote”. 24 June. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/24/european-far-right-hails-britains-brexit-vote-marine-le-pen.

The Guardian. 2016b. “Ventotene summit to chart roadmap for EU’s response to Brexit vote”. 22 August. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/21/ventotene-summit-france-italy-germany-eu-brexit-vote.

The Guardian. 2016c. “Brexit politicians are putting us on a fast track to financial jeopardy”. 22 October. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/22/brexit-threat-to-british-banks.

[1] See results here: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/eu-referendum-results-latest-news-and-updates-as-polls-close-in-historic-brexit-vote-a3279351.html.



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