Turks losing trust in EU
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came into office in 2002 having pledged to Turkish citizens that he would eventually lead his country into the EU.
In fact, since negotiations on Turkish admission to the EU were officially launched in October 2005 and celebrated with much fanfare, the momentum of government reforms has slowed dramatically, which appears to be at least partly due to the constant drop in public support for EU accession.
The autumn 2007 Eurobarometer survey conducted by TNS Opinion revealed that only 49% of the Turks still consider EU membership a "good thing". But respondents were still twice as likely to consider it a good rather than a bad thing (25%). To put this into context, the proportion of Turkish respondents in favour of membership is much higher than in Croatia (35% support) but far lower than in Macedonia (76%).
Many Turks were asking why they should adopt the difficult reforms required by the EU before accession if Europeans do not want Turkey inside the Union anyway. Indeed, last year only 26% of the Turks still believed that their country will actually join the EU (compared to 56% of Europeans), according to a German Marshall Fund survey.
EU image suffers setback
Asked in June 2007 to name the country which they would most associate with 'warm feelings', more Turks cited arch enemy Iran as their answer than the EU, according to a Transatlantic Trend survey carried out in 11 selected EU member states. On a scale from 0 to 100 degrees, the EU only reached 22 degrees - a 20-degree drop compared to 2006.
Moreover, the majority of Turks considered EU global leadership 'undesirable' (54%).
Nevertheless, in the August 2007 elections Turkish citizens provided the two main pro-EU parties, the AKP and the CHP, with a remarkable two-thirds majority in Parliament. Erdogan's AKP gained 47% of the vote – up from 34% in 2002 - indicating that the Turks have not completely given up on Europe yet.
Respect for human rights: A shared value
The lack of respect for human rights is a central argument being brought up against a Turkish accession.
85% of Europeans insist that Turkey cannot join if it does not 'systematically respect human rights', according to the latest TNS Eurobarometer from autumn 2007.
Between October 2006 and October 2007, the European Court of Human Rights delivered 330 judgements finding that Turkey had violated at least one article of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In this context, it is worth noting that when asked to choose the three most important societal values from a given list, the responses of Turks and EU citizens are not so different. Turkish citizens generally share an appreciation of many of the values which constitute the heart of the EU's legal system, such as the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights.
France and Germany see EU as 'Christian club'
The main dividing line appears to be religion. Cultural and religious differences are perhaps the most sensitive of all the arguments raised against Turkish accession to the bloc, with several conservative European leaders, most notably France's President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, making the case for the EU as a 'Christian club'.
Both leaders can rely on large support from citizens of their own countries as well as others. The populations of France and Germany along with those of Austria, Cyprus, and Greece have been most critical of the prospect of allowing Turkey to join the Union, with proportions against membership as high as 80 percent, according to a Eurobarometer survey from 2005.
In this context, it will be interesting to see how the Union's talks with Turkey progress when France takes over the EU Presidency in the second half of 2008. Sarkozy has previously pledged to hold a referendum on Turkey's accession and during his election campaign even called for the suspension of EU talks with Turkey in favour of a 'privileged partnership', strongly supported by Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party (CDU).
The story was largely taken up by the Turkish media, fuelling anti-French sentiment among the population.
However, Sarkozy recently reassured the Turkish government that the talks will continue under the French Presidency, although likely to take place at a more moderate pace, and also Merkel made clear she would stick to the commitment negotiated by the predecessor government.
Scholars often refer to France's failure to integrate its five million-strong Muslim immigrant community when looking for reasons to explain its staunch anti-Turkey stance.
Although only 400,000 of France's Muslims are Turks, people do not distinguish between nationalities, French commentator Dominique Moisi says. "For the average Frenchman, a Turk is an Arab," while every new riot in the suburbs involving Arabs nurtures the 'no' camp, Moisi argues.
The Pew Center's 2005 and 2006 Global Attitude Polls support this argument, suggesting that citizens in EU countries with high percentages of Muslim immigrants adopt negative attitudes towards people practising Islam. Figures are remarkably high in Spain (62%) and Germany (54%) and still significant in France (35%) and the UK (20%).
French not alone in their anti-Turkey stance
The UK is often mentioned as an alternative example, where the 1.5 million Muslims are more or less well integrated into society.
However, this has not been enough to prevent a drop in popular support for Turkish membership in the UK, with the percentage of citizens in favour suffering a dramatic 15% decrease within two years (from 38% in 2005 to 23% in 2007).
In Germany – home to the largest Turkish community outside home soil - riots like those in France are rather the exception, but the reputation of the Turkish population is nevertheless relatively low.
This is largely due to the fact that while much of Turkey is becoming more open, modern and diverse, many Turkish immigrants remain traditionalist, as Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform (CER) writes. The 45 honour killings committed by Turks on German soil since 1996 are a proof of this, the author argues.
In Austria, the EU's most Turkey-sceptic member, the impression that the alpine country's 200,000 Turkish immigrants have not integrated well appears to have strengthened concerns about Turkey's accession to the EU, writes Barysch. Public opposition in Austria is being further fed by the strict anti-Turkey stance of Austria's two biggest political parties and much of the media, allowing the – admittedly small – 'pro' camp little public space to communicate its arguments.
Like France, Austria's government has promised to hold a referendum on Turkish membership once the accession treaty has been signed. "In this context, it seems possible that in the long-term, accession referenda [as proposed by Austria and France] will fail, blocking Turkey's bid to join the EU even if it fulfils all other necessary conditions," argues Antonia Ruiz Jimenez from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Europeans fear mass Turkish immigration
Jimenez argues that Europeans' perception of "cultural differences" appears to be rooted in their fear of Muslim – not necessarily Turkish – immigration to their countries. In fact, 85% of the Europeans who believe that the cultural differences between Turkey and the EU are "too significant" also fear that Turkey's accession will bring more Muslim immigrants, according to a Eurobarometer from 2005.
Does Turkey belong to Europe?
The perception of cultural distance appears clear, despite the fact that Turkey is often geographically seen as 'European'. In the same Eurobarometer, 56% agreed that "Turkey partly belongs to Europe by its geography," yet 66% also decided that "the cultural differences between Turkey and the EU member states are too significant to allow for this accession".
This perception was particularly high in countries where popular support for Turkey's accession is lowest, such as Greece, Germany and Austria.
Old vs. New Europe
European opposition to Turkish EU membership has risen constantly over the last decade and exceeded 50% for the first time in 2005. In 1996, opponents of Turkey's accession outnumbered supporters by just eight percent, while in 2006 the difference had grown to 35%, according to Eurobarometer.
This development runs contrary to the general trend of more favourable attitudes to further enlargement recently, as the TNS Eurobarometer from spring 2007 revealed. 49% spoke in favour of further accession rounds (+3%), while 39% were opposed.
As a general rule, newer member states tend to be far more enthusiastic about future enlargement, the Eurobarometer reveals. While support for more enlargement in the new member states averaged 68%, in 'Old Europe' (the EU 15) only 43% shared this view.
Poland holds the title of the most pro-enlargement country (76% in favour), while in Luxembourg only 25% of citizens support further accessions to the bloc. In this context, it does not come as a surprise that the countries most inclined towards further enlargement are also the ones which are most supportive of Turkish accession.
'Pro' camp in the minority
According to a 2006 Eurobarometer, the supporters' camp consists of Poland, Spain, Sweden and Slovenia. All of these are among the strongest proponents of further enlargement.
Citizens in Hungary, Malta, the UK and Portugal are undecided, while the vast majority of countries – 19, including heavyweights Germany and France - are clearly opposed to Turkish accession.
According to this poll, only 22% see Turkish membership as a good thing, while 42% do not have a clear opinion on this issue. The overall picture remained more or less the same even when participants were asked if Turkey should be admitted when it has implemented the required reforms. 64% of the French, 54% of the Italians and 49% of the Germans would still reject Turkey's accession in this case. Only in Spain did supporters of Turkish admission achieve parity with their opponents given further Turkish reforms (36% both for and against).
Turkey's accession: An external or domestic question?
Some scholars argue that the country's attitude "depends critically on whether it sees Turkish accession as a question of foreign policy (such as in Spain or the UK) or primarily a matter of internal EU or even national politics (such as in France or Germany).
They also consider opposition to Turkish membership to be linked to a country's wider view of the future of the Union.
"Many people in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy fear that including Turkey would spell the end of the federalists' dream of a political union. In the UK, the Nordics and other countries that are less keen on political integration, further enlargement is viewed more positively," says Nathalie Tocci of the Instituto Affari Internazionali.
Turkey would upset the EU's internal balance of power
Among French people, and politicians in particular, there is a wide belief that their country's role in Europe has already been weakened by previous enlargements and Turkey's accession would only further dilute its influence.
"For them, Turkey is a step too far," says Nicolas Veron of the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, who argues that by the time Turkey is ready for EU membership it could even surpass Germany as the Union's biggest country in Europe, with 80-90 million people.
This would have wide-ranging implications on the power structure within the European institutions, with Turkey sending the largest number of MEPs into the European Parliament and gaining the most dominant position in the Council.
Citizens turn blind eye to benefits of Turkish accession
All these findings indicate that EU citizens are largely immune to the elites' debates about the strategic and economic benefits of Turkish accession, which are "plain to see", argues Barysch from the CER. They range from the economic boost that would come from adding the fast-growing and youthful Turkey to the soft power that the Union would gain from including a well-functioning Muslim democracy, she says.
In fact, Turkey's economic performance since the 2000/2001 crisis has been impressive, with growth averaging eight percent during 2002-2004 and since then settling down between 5-6%, according to World Bank figures.
Despite these facts, the Turkish economy is not a factor in the European public debate on the country's accession. Only 36% of EU citizens consider it a strong argument in favour of Turkey's accession that a strong Turkish economy may boost to the EU economies, the 2007 Transatlantic Trends survey showed. In comparison, 74% of the Turks said they considered it a good argument.
On the European side, the only aspect that features high in the public debate is the security issue. 52% of Europeans support the theory that Turkish membership could help promote peace in the Middle East (and even 67% of the Turks think the same way).
This does not come as a surprise as the security aspect is also the one most often referred to by EU leaders. Apart from that, EU citizens instead tend to emphasise the negative aspects of allowing Turkey to join the EU.
Improving Turkey's image
Turkey's general problem is the country's less than positive image. According to the Anholt nation brand index 2007, Turkey came 34th out of 40 countries ranked for their appeal to citizens, behind Russia, Mexico and Egypt.
Candidate country Croatia on the other hand is seen fairly positively by EU citizens and its membership bid encounters little opposition.
"In many ways, Turkey's brand image today in the West is in the same shape as if Atatürk had never lived," says the independent government advisor Simon Anholt.
Turkey would need a "comprehensive and consistent strategy for gradually improving its international image," allowing Europeans to glimpse 'the real Turkey' in its modern manifestation, Anholt suggests.
Thus far, positive aspects such as its good reputation as a tourist destination are being foiled by negative events, such as court orders against journalists or the debate on the head scarf, which have tended to confirm people's prejudices.
Debate lacks European dimension
Scholars acknowledge that it is "difficult to reach a European consensus on Turkey's accession" given the lack of an EU-wide dimension to the debate. Indeed, although debate has picked up it remains limited to the national level.
Public opinion scholars Antonia M. Ruiz-Jimenez and Jose I. Torreblanca from the European Policy Institutes Network rule out the idea that the argument over Turkey's future EU membership can be won simply with cost-benefit arguments.
"The key to Turkish EU membership may well lie in the way accession is argued and justified, and not wholly in the way it is negotiated," the authors conclude.