Turkey in the EU – What the public thinks


European scepticism about Turkey’s EU accession is fuelling a popular backlash among many Turks who are growing increasingly distrustful of the EU.

Pre-membership talks officially started in October 2005 and are expected to last for at least 10-15 years, with several European leaders stressing that they are to be open-ended and will not automatically lead to Turkey's full membership. 

As Turkey is a country "whose accession could have substantial financial consequences," negotiations can only be concluded after 2014, the scheduled date for the establishment of the EU's new financial framework. 

The talks can be suspended upon request by the Commission or one third of EU countries in case of a "serious and persistent breach […] of the principles of democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law on which the Union is founded". The final decision would be made by the Council by qualified majority. 

The accession negotiations break down into 35 policy areas  (chapters) - more than any previous candidate - and the decision to open and close a chapter requires unanimity among all 27 EU countries. 

Since the EU granted Turkey official candidate status, public opinion has gained in importance. In the majority of EU member states, citizens have become increasingly critical of Turkey's future accession, while in turn, Turkish citizens have begun to question the EU's wholeheartedness. 

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. 

Turkish Foreign Minister  and chief negotiator with the EU Ali Babacan claims that the Turkish public opinion backlash against the EU results from "certain negative statements" and "perceptions", most notably from France, which led the Turkish people to think that they are "not wanted" in the EU. 

Babacan warned that "if we were to lose the target of EU membership, we would have trouble keeping the momentum for reform", urging France to play a constructive role during its EU Presidency. 

Turkish Secretary General for EU Affairs Mustafa Oguz Demiralp argues along the same lines, saying that EU leaders' habit of using Turkey's population, geography and culture as arguments for a 'privileged partnership' instead of full membership "would weaken the Turkish public's trust in the EU". 

However, he pointed out that it was "more suitable to describe Turkish public opinion as distrustful instead of pessimistic" towards the EU membership process. 

Speaking to EURACTIV, Dr. Bahadir Kaleagasi, representing leading Turkish business association TUSIAD in Brussels, said membership talks were progressing too slowly and blamed the EU for the increasingly eurosceptic mood in Turkey. 

He regretted that Turkey's potential accession was "not a priority topic on domestic political agendas," calling for an information and communication campaign aimed at better selling the benefits of Turkish membership to European citizens. 

France, along with Austria, has turned into one of the staunchest opponents of Turkish membership under the new President Nicolas Sarkozy. Unlike his more neutral predecessor Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy has repeatedly stated his point of view that "Turkey has no place in Europe" and has used this to gain public support in his country. 

During the 2007 election campaign, Sarkozy even called for the suspension of accession talks with Turkey, instead advocating a "privileged partnership" (see also Germany).

Sarkozy, however, recently toned down his opposition, making clear that France would not obstruct the talks during its Presidency. 

In French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Turkey also has one big supporter, who has said repeatedly that if it was him to decide, talks would move much faster. 

In Germany, the country with the highest Turkish population outside the homeland (about 2.5 million Turks live there and 600,000 have even become German citizens), the political spectrum is extremely divided over Turkish EU-membership. 

While Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ruling Christian Democratic Party reject full Turkish membership due to the unbridegeable cultural and religious differences, and like France prefers to offer a "privileged partnership", the co-ruling Social Democrats of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder are strongly in favour of Turkey's accession. They argue that a Turkish EU membership could contribute to peace and stability in the region and also help removing Western prejudices towards the Islam and Muslims. 

Britain remains a strong supporter of Turkish EU membership because the UK's official line has always been to favour further enlargement over deepening the EU to prevent the bloc from growing too powerful at the expense of national sovereignty. 

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated that the EU's clear goal could only be to have Turkey as a full member, which he hoped would also further strengthen the already significant trade ties between the UK and Turkey. 

The government of Greece, Turkey's traditional enemy, has by now -  unlike the very sceptical Greek citizens - practically become a cheerleader for Ankara's EU membership. According to Athens, it is better to have Turkey in the club than outside. 

Commission President José Manuel Barroso made clear that the current talks should go on, however, urging the member states not to take any definitive decision regarding Turkey until the end of the negotiations. 

Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told EURACTIV in an interview that "the support of EU citizens is key to any European policy, including enlargement". 

"This is why communication is a cornerstone of our enlargement policy to generate a well-informed debate in the public," he explained. 

He added: "Turkey's accession is not for today and it is not an automatic process. It will be a long and sometimes difficult journey, which will generate an important transformation of the country." This transformed Turkey would be the country that "the citizens will have to look at when deciding about their support," Rehn said. 

Speaking at an enlargement conference in March 2007 in Brussels, Rehn said that due to enlargement the EU has grown "much stronger and more influential in global affairs" and would do so further if Turkey joined one day. "Size indeed matters," he added, referring to Turkey's 70 million-strong population. 

German EPP-ED Group member  and chair of the Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee Elmar Brok argues that after the current round of enlargement, which will be completed with the accession of Croatia in 2010, the EU "first of all has to consolidate and focus on internal reforms before being ready for new enlargement". 

Referring to a statement by former Commission President Romano Prodi, Brok suggested a 'Third Way' in dealing with Turkey, foreseeing a further deepening of relations and allowing the country to join "everything but the institutions", which would exclude full membership. 

"The premature opening of the membership talks has disappointed the Turks. This could have been prevented by a well-conceived enlargement strategy three years ago. The EU now has to quickly develop a strategy allowing Turkey to move closer towards the EU without threatening the political project of the EU," Brok said. 

Speaking at an enlargement conference, German MEP Ingo Friedrich of the EPP-ED Group voiced concern regarding the EU's absorption capacity if Turkey joins the Union, stressing that two thirds of the EU budget would go to Turkey. 

Speaking to EURACTIV, British Liberal MEP  and vice-chairman of the Parliament's EU-Turkey Joint Committee Andrew Duff identified four strands of political opinion in Turkey "that have to be defeated before the progressive bourgeois, liberal Turkey, which certainly exists and is growing, can assure its success: the ultra-nationalists, the Kemalists, the separatist PKK and the Islamic fundamentalists". 

Chris Levy  of TNS Opinion,  a leading polling institute  working with the European Commission, told EURACTIV that although the Turks' enthusiasm for accession has drastically waned in recent years "the concerted drive the Turkish government is making for membership is still reflected by the public's favourability towards the prospect". 

Senem Aydin, a Turkey expert from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) said the talks were moving "too slowly", admitting that "one cannot blame only the EU for this, but also Turkey, which has failed to deliver its commitments". 

"Turkey makes one step forward, only to make two steps back," Aydin told EURACTIV. 

She argued that EU-Turkey relations have arrived at a low point, with Turks questioning the credibility of the EU's offer and Europeans wondering whether they should trust the AKP. 

  • 3 Oct. 2005: Accession talks symbolically opened with Turkey. 
  • 12 June 2006: The EU starts concrete accession negotiations with Turkey. The negotiating framework specifies 35 chapters, which all need to be unanimously opened and closed by the Council. 
  • July 2007: AK Party wins parliamentary elections on a pledge to lead the country into the EU. 
  • Feb 2008: The Turkish Parliament's decision to approve constitutional amendments allowing women to wear the Islamic headscarf in universities sparks heavy protest on the streets. 
  • 17 June 2008: Two more chapters on company law and intellectual property rights  were opened.
  • 1 July 2008: Turkey-sceptic France takes over EU Presidency.
  • Autumn 2008: Commission to present next progress report on Turkey. 

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