Why Turkish Membership of the European Union Has Continually Been Rejected?


The EU and Turkey have had a long history in relations that seem not to end since the formal opening of accession negotiations in 2005; this has been beneficial to both the EU and Turkey (Ugur 109). However, this paper advances the reasons as why turkey’s membership to the EU has continually been rejected. The reasons enumerated clearly include; one, Turkey’s economic dimension presents an obstacle to EU’s acceptance of Turkey as a member. Hence, the country’s huge population would present the EU with a huge challenge; two, Turkey’s shortcomings in democracy and human rights. Turkey’s poor human rights have failed to meet EU standards, hence numerous rejections of the country’s membership requests; three, the Kurdish question. Turkish membership of the EU has continually been rejected by the EU due the way the country approaches to minority rights; four, Turkey’s Islamic fundamentalism inclination. The majority of Europeans are weary to the degree to which Turkey’s Islamic religious and cultural traditions are compatible with the traditional values of the Europeans; five, political differences with Greece and Cyprus; six, Turkey’s Differences with EU over Defense and Security. For instance, Turkey has not Europeanized its foreign policy unlike other Southern European members of NATO (Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization). This has set Turkey apart from the rest of the Southern region in NATO; seven, Turkey’s Civilian Control of the Military; and eight, EU’s Priority to Eastern Enlargement.

Turkey’s Economic Dimension

The European Union has continually been rejecting Turkey’s membership due to the countries economic dimension. There exist significant economic obstacles that continue to delay Turkey’s admission into the EU. One important economic obstacle is the huge size of Turkey as a country. It has a population of nearly 68 million, thus, making it the second largest nation in Europe behind Germany. Increased growth rate of Turkish population could make the country the largest population in Europe (Larrabee 54). This would make the integration of the country into the EU, especially one that is characterized by enormous regional disparities, would present enormous challenge to the European Union. Turkey has instituted reforms that essentially abandoned import substitution strategy that had previously been the backbone of Turkey’s economic policy. Her economy has since become more open and there is increased expansion in the private sector. More than half of Turkey’s foreign trade is with the European Union. In addition, Turkey has significantly reformed its trade structure with the EU. Turkey used to be an exporter of agricultural produce and raw materials in the 1970s. Currently, the bulk of the country’s exports to the EU are manufactured goods (Larrabee 55).

Despite of these reforms, the Turkish economy still exhibits structural weaknesses that inherently prevent the country’s integration into the EU. These structural differences includes: one, Turkey’s income levels are low compared to those of Western Europe, that is, the country has low per capita income. Turkey has about $3,000 per capita Gross Domestic Product which is well below that of the poorest European nations. For instance, Greece and Portugal have per capita income of $11,770 and $10,600, respectively (Larrabee 54).

Secondly, the agricultural workforce in Turkey is huge. Turkey has about 40% of its population engaged in agriculture compared to Britain’s 2% (Larrabee 54). This rural workforce comprises about 15 million people; a population bigger than the population of other prospective EU members. The EU feels that it is a challenge shifting this huge population out of agriculture into modern forms of the economic activities; it would require enormous and prolonged structural adjustments.

Thirdly, there exist large regional disparities in Turkey. A larger part of Turkey, particularly areas of central and Eastern Anatolia are agricultural with lower living standards except areas of Ankara and Istanbul whose levels of prosperity and living standards are comparable to those of Eastern Europe.

Fourthly, Turkey experiences high inflation rates, about 80% annually, higher than the average in the European Union (Larrabee 55). This has affected the financial sector negatively and has resulted to low foreign investment for Turkey. Reduced inflation rates would not only increase foreign investment for Turkey but would also boost its growth rates;

Fifth, Turkey has very low foreign investment rates compared to other EU countries. For instance, its foreign investments in the periods 1993-1997 averaged about 0.5% of Gross National Product. Spain, Greece and Portugal by contrast attracted foreign investment of about 1 and 2% during the same period (Larrabee 55). The low rates of foreign investments in Turkey are attributed to macro-economic instability and regulatory deficiencies. Other factors which have inhibited foreign investments in Turkey include high inflation rates and regimes of cumbersome bureaucratic practices.

Sixth, the country’s public sector experiences high deficit, about 35-45% of the Gross National Product (Larrabee 56). This is one of the causes of high inflation rates experienced by Turkey. Therefore, this inflation rate is compounded by structural weaknesses in the financial sector that makes it difficult for Turkish banks to compete with other banks in EU; and seventh, Turkey’s pace of privatization has been slow and the country had not enacted any necessary legislation to hasten the pace of privatization. Additionally, there also exists lack of transparency in decision making which has led to massive fraud, bribery and corruption.

Turkey’s Shortcomings in Democracy and Human Rights

The major objections of Turkeys full membership to the EU lies in the field of democracy and human rights record. The European Union evaluations of possible inclusion of Turkey to the EU have indicated consistently existing shortcomings in Turkey’s human rights record. Although some initiatives have been taken by Turkey to address these shortcomings, the EU still finds the progress slow and insufficient. Moreover, Turkey has not implemented many of the changes in law. Among the sensitive issues of concern to the EU are; the use of torture in Turkey, and the concern about the restrictions of freedom of expression (Larrabee 56).

The use of torture in Turkey is one of the sensitive issues that the EU is concerned about in giving Turkey full membership. For instance, in 1997 at the Luxembourg summit, Luxembourg Prime Minister brought the issue in the limelight by remarking that torturous could not sit in the EU table; a remark that caused discomfort in Turkey. However, it highlighted the need for Turkey to look into the torture problem conclusively if it is to attain full membership to the EU. There continue to be deficiencies in Turkey’s record concerning application torture. These deficiencies arise due to poor implementation of legislations and regulations on the books; not because of Turkey’s state policy that condones torture. Turkey has undertaken a number of steps in the last several years to tighten legislations against torture. However, incidents of torture continue to be reported in Turkey. Hence, for Turkey to gain full membership of the EU, it needs to take extra measures to ensure that legislations and regulations against the application of torture are implemented in full.

The EU has also continued to restrict Turkey’s quest for full EU membership due to concern about restrictions on freedom of expression. In particular, these restrictions are contained in Articles 159 and 312 of Turkey’s Penal Code and paragraphs 7 and 8 of the Turkish Anti-Terrorism Legislation. However, Turkey amended these legislations in 2002 after intense debate. Nevertheless, the EU still finds these changes falling short of the Copenhagen criteria (Larrabee, 56).

The Kurdish Problem

Turkish membership of the EU has also continually been rejected by the EU due the way Turkey deals with minority rights, particularly for the Kurdish population. Turkey has Kurdish population comprising about 8 to 12 million people out of 67.8 million of Turkey’s total population (Larrabee 55). In November1998, the European Commission prepared a report on Turkey that was intended to assess Turkey’s progress towards accession to the EU on the basis of the political criteria adopted at the Copenhagen Summit in June1993. The report revealed that Turkey was not meeting all the thresholds of these criteria. In regard to the Kurdish question, the report required Turkey to find a political solution devoid of militancy (Cornell 34).

This reference to minority rights and the need for a political solution raised criticisms and even resulted in accusations of European intentions to undermine territorial integrity of Turkey. Turkey had expressed its discomfort over the requirement of meeting the Copenhagen criteria on minority rights because of its genuine fear of separatism. Turkey argued that the criteria could jeopardize its prospects of joining the EU. Turkey has repeatedly rejected demands by the Kurds for greater regional autonomy and cultural rights. These rights include; the right to receive public education in their own language. Turkey denied the Kurds these rights for fear that this could spark separatists’ pressures and threats to the integrity of the Turkish state (Arikan 49).

Turkeys Islamic Inclination

Turkey’s quest to join EU raises vital issues of culture and civilization. Despite the fact that the EU pegs the criteria of Turkey joining it on Copenhagen criteria, beneath the surface, many Europeans are weary to the degree to which Turkey’s Islamic religious and cultural traditions are compatible with the traditional values of the Europeans. The role of Islam in social and political life of Turkey has increased over the past several decades (Boulton 12). The failure of EU to include Turkey on the list of candidate states in the Copenhagen summit rightfully provoked outrage in Turkey. It even prompted Turkey to halt its political dialogue with the EU. Majority of the Turkish people believe that the EU’s continued rejection of Turkey’s candidacy was unfair and portrays an inherent prejudice against Turkey on cultural and religious platforms because it is a Muslim nation. Such concerns are not far fetched from European thinking (Ergil 51).

Political Differences with the Greek and Cyprus

The differences Turkey had with the Greek and Cyprus form an important factor of Turkey’s objection to full membership with the EU. However, there has been marked improvement on relations between Turkey and Greece since mid-1999. Nevertheless, this has been limited to relatively to areas that are not controversial. Central differences over the Aegean in Greece and Cyprus have not been resolved. Furthermore, Aegean and Cyprus issues resolution has become increasingly linked to Turkey’s agitation for EU membership. For instance, in admitting Turkey as an official candidate for membership at Helsinki summit, the EU council requested candidate states to try every effort to resolve their border disputes and other related issues. The EU council stated that its review of the situation would have been conducted at the end of 2004 in relation to the accession process. Thus, the failure of Turkey to progress towards resolving Aegean dispute by 2004, led the EU refuse to open accession negations with Turkey (Anastasious 1).

Turkey has always sought and received assurances from the EU that its interests and EU membership prospects would not be affected by Greece’s full membership. These assurances have not been binding. In turkey’s point of view as well as many EU members, Greece has used its membership to hinder progress in Turkey and EU relations. The outcome of the EU’s Luxembourg summit, which rejected Turkey’s quest to be included among the countries eligible for EU membership, Turkey vented its anger toward Greece for its active role in the decision. Turkey’s disappointment was compounded by the decision by the EU to succumb to the Greek pressure and place Cyprus on the fast track for EU accession, in spite of Turkey’s insistence of prior settlement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots (Arikan, 159).

In short, Cyprus was the main issue between Greece and Turkey. After the end of cold war, the EU and the US had policy differences over Cyprus. The US involvement in the issue had to do with the importance of Turkey as a security asset to the US in the region. The EU’s policy on the other hand, seems to some extent, been shaped by the Greek presence in the EU (MMag 3). Greece has used its EU membership to as a bargaining counter in broader negotiations with Turkey. In essence, the Greek presence in the EU has made it hard for EU to pursue a balanced policy in relation to the Cyprus issue, as Greece is an active participant in decision making process of EU. For instance, Greece has a veto power in decision making of the EU over Turkey, as Turkey has been eager to become a member. Greece has managed as a result, to drive the EU towards agreeing the view that Turkey’s disagreements with Greece have affected the relationship between the EU and Turkey.

Turkey’s Differences with EU over Defense and Security

Differences over defense and security policy have also dented relations between Turkey and Europe. This provides an important reason why Turkey has not realized full membership in the EU. Turkey has not Europeanized its foreign policy unlike other Southern European members of NATO (Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization). This has set Turkey apart from the rest of the Southern region in NATO. Turkey’s distinctiveness has been enhanced due to the development within EU of security and defense policy. In the process, this also created a new set of problems. Turkey’s attitude has continued to be ambivalent, although other Southern European countries have fully adopted EU’s development of a stronger security and defense component. Turkey as a non member of EU prefers the strengthening of NATO’s role in Europeans security, since this would reduce her voice in on European security matters (Larrabee 65).

Turkey is greatly involved in the Middle East affairs since the end of the cold war. This creates a dilemma to Turkey as many European partners are reluctant to broaden NATO’s mandate beyond Europe and might balk at assisting Turkey if it enters into conflict with Iraq or Syria, especially if Turkey were portrayed to have instigated the conflict. However, a failure to come to Turkey’s assistance would create a crisis in Turkey’s relations with NATO and could even tempt Turkey to withdraw from the alliance (Martin 231).

Turkey’s Civilian Control of the Military

The civilian control over the military in Turkey is one of the reasons of EU’s objection of its membership. For Turkey to qualify, the EU requires a significant change in the role of the military in the political life of Turkey. The Turkish military views its mission in terms of defending Turkish state territorial integrity against external aggression but also protect her against internal challenges (Bourantonis 117).

Turkey’s membership in the EU requires a reduction in of the military’s influence in Turkish politics. However, Turkish military has never been willing to accept such a willing profile resulting to the country’s continued rejection from EU membership. As Turkish Islamists have sought to modernize and discard fundamentalism, Turkish military has become more dogmatic in its interpretation of Kemalism (Arikan 121). Majority of military officers fear the reforms required for joining the EU would weaken the Turkish state to manage its security challenges. The military had initially opposed the relaxation of restrictions on freedoms of expression in the constitution and the penal code, including easing the ban on Kurdish broadcasts, arguing that the lifting of these restrictions would pose a threat to the integrity of the Turkish state (Tiersky 3).

EU’s Priority to Eastern Enlargement

The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990 complicated Turkey’s quest for EU membership. This created a dilemma to the EU; how to integrate these countries of Eastern Europe back in the EU community. These countries had emerged from 45 years of communist rule. Turkey found itself suddenly thrust to the back of enlargement queue by an emergence of a large new group of candidates for EU membership; countries that were a few years earlier been on the other side of East-West divide (Tiersky 3). These East European countries were less advanced economically than Turkey. Despite of this fact, the EU went a head admitting them since it considered them to be politically and culturally a part of Europe than Turkey. The integration of these countries into the EU introduced a cultural dimension to its policy (Martin 101).

The summit held in Copenhagen in June 1993 brought about new dimension to EU’s approach to enlargement. It rejected Turkey’s candidacy but rather acknowledged the membership of East European and Baltic states as a major objective of EU policy. It also set out specific political and economic criteria for membership. Among these requirements, candidates had to achieve stable democracy, maintain the rule of law, respect human rights, and protect the rights of minorities. These criteria complicated Turkey’s quest for membership. In doing these, the EU accentuated the difference between Turkey and other candidates. Turkey fell short on many of the political criteria especially those that fall under human rights. However, its economic qualifications were far much higher than those of many Central and East Europeans states.

The process of differentiation was however ratified during EU’s summit in Luxembourg in December 1997. A two tier accession process was set up with 11 East European and Baltic states including Cyprus. The EU did not accept Turkey as a candidate country. Instead, it set out a pre-accession strategy for Turkey designed to assist it to enhance its candidacy for membership. Thus, Turkey’s rejection by the EU in Luxembourg summit brought into the fore the question whether Europe viewed Muslim Turkey as truly European despite its numerous assurances; and if not, whether the people of Turkey could consider themselves as such.


Turkey still has a long way to go in terms of meeting the EU minimum conditions as a member. It faces numerous challenges in terms of transforming the formal reforms of its political, economic, and judicial institutions into social practices. Turkey has to consolidate its democracy to be able to get admission in the EU. On the other hand, the EU should assist Turkey to realize through supervision of the reform process and support through show of necessary solidarity and understanding. This will aid Turkey to realize a common political future. Europe should also realize that it is not only Turkey which needs to change itself; Europeans should discard grounded prejudices that Turkey presents a threat rather than a partner (Ugur 109). The EU ought to know that Turkey is a Muslim state which should be of EU’s strategic interest in enhancing its modernization process. The accession process could eventually result to a zero sum if the EU would be unable to acknowledge this European perspective.

Works Cited

Anastasious, H. The Broken Olive Branch. Istanbul: Syracuse University Press, 2008.

Arikan, H. Turkey and the EU. New York: Ashgate Publishing, 2003.

Bourantonis, D., Ifantis., Tsakonas, P. Multilateralism and Security Institutions in an Era of Globalization. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Boulton, L. “Turkish Military Resists EU Demands on Kurds”. Financial Times. Dec. 2000.

Cornell, S. “The Kurdish Question in Turkish Politics”. Orbits, Nov. 2000.

Ergil, D. “Identity Crisis and Political Instability in Turkey”. The Journal of International Affair, 2001.

Larrabee, S., Lesser, I., & Center for Middle East Policy (2003). Turkish Foreign Policy in Age and Uncertainty. Istanbul: Rand Corporation, 2003.

Martin, L., Keridis, D. (2004). The Future of Turkish Foreign Policy. New York: MIT Press.

MMag, M., & Spreitzhofer, G. Turkey’s Quest for EU Membership. Istanbul: Grin Verlag.

Tiersky, R. Europe Today. London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Ugur, M., & Canefe, N. Turkey and European Integration. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Find out your order's cost