Turkey is the largest of the present candidate countries seeking to join the EU and its candidacy is the most hotly debated. Its location, population size, economy, and human rights record all raise fundamental questions about the nature and identity of the EU. If Turkey was admitted then it would have a large say in EU decisions. Due to its large population, membership would grant them the second-largest number of MEPs in the European Parliament.
On 7 March 2016 the European Council met with Turkey to discuss solutions to the ongoing migration and refugee crisis. Whilst a deal has not been finalised, some broad principles were agreed. All migrants coming into Greece from Turkey who do not follow normal travel procedures will be returned to Turkey. The costs will be covered by the EU.
For every Syrian migrant readmitted by Turkey, one Syrian from Turkey will be resettled in the EU. The EU intends to give Turkish citizens visa-free travel within the EU by June 2016 and will speed up Turkey’s EU membership bid. Britain and Ireland may opt out of the visa-free travel offer. The EU will also speed up the payment of €3bn it promised in October and consider further payments. According to the UN, the proposals to send back the whole body refugees from the EU to Turkey would violate their right to asylum under European and international law.
Issues regarding Turkish membership
Economic reforms have brought Turkey closer to fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria, which are required for candidates to join. It has established a stable economy, lower interest rates and falling inflation. Turkey’s economy has grown steadily since 2002 and, if it joined the EU today, it would have the seventh largest economy. Critics have suggested that Turkey’s economy is too different. Over 25% of its workforce is based in agriculture and average income is well below the EU average. Countries with lower incomes have joined before, such as Bulgaria in 2007, but as Turkey’s population is much larger, critics suggest that low levels of education and a high poverty rate mean membership could carry excessive economic costs.
Turkish judicial and prison systems have been reformed, international human rights laws have been recognised and safeguards against torture have been introduced, although abuses are still fairly common. Eight people died during the Gezi Park protests in 2013; at least four were due to police violence, and 8,000 were injured. Freedom of the press has been declining for several years, with new laws extending the state’s power to block websites and increase surveillance. In 2015, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were banned, several newspapers closed and editors arrested.
Turkey’s population is 98% Muslim. Those in favour of EU membership view the process as important for integrating Islamic nations. However, only 3% of Turkey’s landmass lies within Europe. People who oppose Turkish membership point to this, as well as cultural differences, to argue that Turkey cannot be considered European and should not join.
The relationship between Turkey and Cyprus is a significant obstacle to membership. In 1983, the northern part of Cyprus declared itself the independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Because the Greek-Cypriot government does not recognise the TRNC’s independence, Turkey refuses to recognise Greek-Cyprus or to trade with the country, which is now a member of the EU. Turkish harbours are blocked to ships carrying the Cypriot flag, which is illegal under an EU-Turkey customs agreement.
Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1952. In 1963, the Ankara Agreement of Association was signed as a step towards creating a customs union between Turkey and the European Community (EC). Turkey applied to join the EC in 1987.
In 1995 the EU established a customs union with Turkey which covers trade in manufactured goods. Today, more than half of Turkey’s trade is with the EU. In 1999 and 2002 the European Council made statements supporting eventual Turkish membership once the country fulfills all of the Copenhagen criteria. Membership negotiations officially began in October 2005.
In 2006, the EU suspended the opening of eight areas of negotiation and announced that no more would be completed. This was because Turkey had failed to develop the customs union sufficiently and refused to open their ports and airports to Greek or Cypriot traffic.
As of 2015, only 14 of the 33 areas of negotiation have started. For the first time in two years, negotiations advanced in December 2015 on economic and monetary policy. The negotiations were agreed at the EU-Turkey Summit on 29 November 2015. The summit sought to create a common response to the migrant crisis and build EU-Turkey relations. On 24 November 2015, the Commission created a Turkey Refugee Facility which will pool €3 billion to assist refugees and host communities in Turkey.