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Turkey's EU apathy

June 10, 2011

Joining the EU was an opportunity many Turks were eager to embrace as accession talks began six years ago. With enthusiasm now waning, the issue has barely been mentioned ahead of Sunday’s general election.

A Turkish flag and an EU flag fly in front of the Nur-i Osmaniye Mosque
The issue of accession has slipped down the political agendaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Little remains of the pro-Europe enthusiasm that was evident six years ago when Turkey began accession negotiations to the European Union.

The process of joining the bloc is currently at an impasse and public patience appears to be strained.

Some of the so-called "chapters" that new member states must negotiate with Brussels - each over a particular aspect of policy - have, for example, been suspended because of Turkey's role in the Cyprus conflict.

Where progress has been possible, its speed depends upon the pace of reform within Turkey itself, which is not always quick. For the wider public it seems, the EU is no longer a priority.

Both Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have included EU accession in their election manifestos. However, at political rallies and events ahead of the ballot on Sunday, not a word has been spoken about the subject.

Few votes to be won

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Erdogan's party is tipped to win and remains committed to joining the EUImage: dapd

Turkish experts on Europe point out that the issue is not a vote winner. The major battles are over corruption and irregularities in nationwide university examinations. Controversy also rages about access to adult video clips via the website YouTube and the impact on politics of the extreme-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

However, no single party is eager to explain its stance on what remains the greatest goal of Turkish foreign policy - EU membership.

Campaigning with a focus on the EU brings with it little in the way of rewards, according to Cigdem Nas, secretary general of the Economic Development Foundation in Istanbul, an organization that specializes in European affairs.

"We see that the Turkish public has lost interest in the EU in general, as well as the accession efforts which have become so bogged down," said Nas.

"Because of this, it has also fallen down the list of priorities of the government. We see that in the election campaign, the issue has slipped from prominence into the background.

"Perhaps it's also because both the government and the opposition have the perspective in their manifestos that accession negotiations have reached an impasse and there are problems that must be overcome. These problems are not going to attract any votes at the election."

A picture of Cigdem Nas
Nas says there is little to gain for politicians who campaign on the EU issueImage: DW

Suspicions on both sides

Of all issues, it is the Cyprus conflict that has led accession negotiations into a cul-de-sac, but there are other sticking points. According to Nas, there is a Turkish perception that French President Nicolas Sarkozy, with the support of Chancellor Angela Merkel, is setting up an anti-Turkish front.

The chairman of the Turkey Europe Foundation, Ziya Muezzinoglu, believes prejudice that exists on both sides have dampened Turkish enthusiasm for the EU.

"We see that, within the EU, some prejudice against Turkey still needs to be overcome but, in many circles in Turkey, there is prejudice against the EU. The EU is seen as a Christian club," said Muezzinoglu.

"On the other hand, some EU countries have also steered the accession negotiations to a dead end because religious and cultural differences in domestic disputes have been used as an argument against Turkey."

While the negotiations with Europe stand still, Turkey is trying to take a leading role in the politics of the Middle East. The growth of insurgency in nearby countries as part of the Arab Spring has augmented Turkey's importance. With a more active role in the region, Turkey may find that it becomes more attractive to the EU as a prospective member.

Poll figures may set policy

Egyptians wave Egyptian and Tunisian flags as they attend a rally in Tahrir square in Cairo
Events in the Arab world may make Turkey's "bridging role" all the more importantImage: AP

At the Economic Development Foundation, Nas believes that the AKP would look at its polling figures to decide on its future direction with regard to Europe if, as predicted, it wins the election.

"I think that, in the end, a lot is going to depend on the share of the votes in the election. If the AKP gets a higher share of the vote, then the party's efforts to justify itself will disappear into the background."

"If they get a lower share, then the goal of EU accession will once again be used as a means of justification to gain prominence. The AKP uses its support for the EU to defend itself against the same circles that accuse it of Islamism and having a hidden agenda."

Many in the AKP are, indeed, keen to emphasize that the party has not been diverted from its goal of EU membership. Belma Satir, a female candidate from Istanbul, said EU accession would always be one of her party's goals.

"In Turkey, the issues of the day change very quickly," said Satir. "However, the EU is one issue that is always present. I am a member of the team that helped shape the program of the AKP when it was being founded. For us, the EU remains the most important issue."

Author: Hülya Köylü / rc
Editor: Nicole Goebel