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Europe

Stalemate in Turkey’s EU accession talks

Threats from the Turkish president. Threats from the European parliament. The path to a peaceful EU accession has turned rocky.

Turkey first applied to join the European Economic Community, the precursor to today's European Union, in 1959. But it wasn't until 2005 - 46 years later - that accession talks with Turkey actually began. That was mainly due to reluctance on the part of EU states that saw the country, which is geographically mainly in Asia, as too Muslim, too strange, and too underdeveloped.

Erdogan a driving force

That changed in 2003, when current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister. The Islamist, who once rejected the idea of EU membership, reformed his country at top speed. His stated goal was to make economically up-and-coming Turkey ready for the EU - to join the bloc as quickly as possible.

Großbritannien Tony Blair & Gerhard Schröder (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Eggitt)

Blair and Schröder led the charge to begin Turkey's EU accession talks

In an interview he gave to DW in 2004, he was anything but timid. He said he wanted Turkey to become the most important state in the EU. Erdogan and the EU made compromises to prepare the way for accession talks. The question of a Turkish withdrawal from the occupied northern part of Cyprus was put on ice. Erdogan proposed a course of reconciliation with the Turkey's Kurdish minority. The driving forces on the EU side were then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The United States also expressly supported EU membership for NATO ally Turkey.

Atatürk dreamed of a European Turkey

But Turkey's road to Europe began long before 2005. The country's founder, Kemal Atatürk, was enthused by the idea of "European civilization" in 1923. With methods that seem questionable today, he tried to leave the Ottoman legacy behind, separate church and state, and institute European values. In 1952, Turkey joined NATO. The United States needed a geopolitically important country at the juncture to the former Soviet Union. In 1964, the European Economic Community and Turkey signed an association agreement that, over the course of several steps, resulted in a free trade area for almost all goods.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (AP)

Atatürk promoted a secular government in Turkey

Economically, Turkey and the EU already had close ties when accession talks began in 2005. And it was Erdogan, an Islamic politician who gave religion a much more important role than Atatürk would have ever tolerated, who succeeded in taking his vision to the next step.

Short-lived honeymoon

But by 2006, the accession talks were in crisis, because Turkey refused to allow Greek Cypriot ships and planes to anchor or land in Turkey - a position it still holds today. And that is a far cry from the necessary recognition of the state of Cyprus as a member of the European Union. Over the last decade, there has been no movement on the Cyprus question. Several attempts to reunify the island, which has been divided since 1974, have failed. The most recent attempt ended in an impasse this past Monday night.

According to information from the European Commission, significant results have been reached in only three out of 35 negotiation chapters. No single chapter can be closed as long as the Cyprus question hangs in the balance. Politically, there has been opposition mainly from Germany, France and the Netherlands. Interest has also been lagging in Turkey. Polls show that public opinion of the European Union has gone down.

Türkei Präsident Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Picture-Alliance/dpa/S. Sunat)

Erdogan became Turkey's prime minister in 2003

Erdogan, who has since been elected as president of Turkey, has announced plans to hold a referendum on EU membership. An increasingly autocratic ruler, Erdogan feels left behind by the bloc. "The EU is currently trying to force us to abandon the process," he said recently in the "Hürriyet" newspaper. But Turkey's patience is limited, he added. "If they don't want us, they should say so openly and make the relevant decisions." The European parliament could take this step and call to suspend accession talks.

Atatürk's dream in jeopardy

The EU's hesitation to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens is also contributing to Ankara's annoyance. Turkey has refused to make the changes to its anti-terror laws that the EU has demanded. Erdogan is considering re-introducing the death penalty. From the EU's point of view, that would spell the end of accession talks. So far, only Austria has demanded the suspension of negotiations.

The EU would require a unanimous decision from all member states in order to formally cancel accession talks with Turkey, just as it did to open them in 2005. Turkey's former EU ambassador Selim Yenel has demanded that his country be an EU member by 2023, when Turkey marks 100 years since its founding. It would be the fulfillment of Atatürk's dream. But at the moment, it doesn't appear likely to happen.

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