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Falling interest in EU

Senada Sokollu / ewApril 7, 2014

Caught up in mounting internal conflicts, Turkey is gradually losing interest in its EU accession candidacy. Many Turks feel disillusioned, including the secular, pro-European elite.

A man waves a Turkish flag showing the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk
Image: Gurcan Ozturk/AFP/Getty Images

For the last year, Turkey has been dogged by one of the worst domestic political crises in its history. It started with the countrywide protests sparked by the Gezi Park sit-in and continued with the Turkish government corruption scandal. It was then further exacerbated by the government's ban on YouTube and Twitter, which also greatly damaged Turkey's international reputation, especially in the European Union.

In light of these events, the results of the recent local elections in capital Ankara were surprising to many. Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 46 percent of the vote. This prompted the EU to issue a statement in which it urged Turkey to concentrate on reforms in order to meet EU standards.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's reaction to such criticism has been increasingly bolder and more dismissive. "The financial crisis, the global crisis, the Arab Spring and the events in Syria and Egypt show that the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey does the EU," he told reporters in Berlin in February.

Later, in response to the Twitter ban scandal, he said that he was indifferent to the international community's opinion - and that everyone would realize the power of the Republic of Turkey one day.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, visiting European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan (l), visiting European Commission head Jose Manuel BarrosoImage: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

Falling interest in the EU

Turkey has been a candidate for EU accession since 2005. However, the country's interest in Europe appears to be waning. This was clear in the recent Transatlantic Trend survey, in which only 44 percent of Turks claimed to be in favor of EU membership. This represents a large drop from the 73-percent in-favor response in 2004. Today, every third Turk is against EU accession, while 10 years ago this figure was just 9 percent.

Many see the reason for this in the drawn-out accession process. "No European country has ever needed this much time to become a member," commented a law student at Istanbul Bilgi University in an interview with DW. "Even after all these years, our chances are no better. On the contrary: the situation is increasingly worse."

The 24-year-old said she was completely pro-European in the past, but now she has her doubts. "The EU doesn't want us anyway - many of my fellow students share this view."

Following all the domestic political scandals, Turkey's citizens seem to be losing hope. One recently twittered, "Does the EU still consider the prospect of EU accession?" And another posted, "I hope Turkey will join the EU in the coming years. This would make living here easier."

According to businessman Güclü Gencer, Turkey's current economic situation is the main reason why "successful businessmen" are losing interest in the EU. Gencer himself is one of Turkey's top entrepreneurs.

"The Turkish economy has grown significantly in the last 10 years," Gencer told DW. "The EU, on the other hand, has been grappling with the financial crisis."

He added that he felt the EU had no plans to accept or reject Turkey, but rather simply wanted to maintain good relations.

A Turkish flag and an EU flag
Aydin: Turkey's secular elite is 'fighting for survival'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"We already have trade agreements between the EU and Turkey anyway," said Gencer. "Apart from that, I think that the EU benefits more from Turkey than the other way around. Turkey is in a very strategically important position - this will always be of help to the EU."

Domestic matters take priority

According to Senem Aydin, a political scientist at Istanbul Bilgi University, the EU currently doesn't enjoy great popularity in Turkey.

"This is partly due to the vague promises made by the EU and the unusually long accession process," said Aydin. "The people no longer believe that the EU is seriously considering Turkey's membership, especially because Turkey is a mostly Muslim country. They believe that Turkey can fulfill all the criteria but still won't become a member."

Aydin added that even the Turkish elite, which has always been in favor of EU accession, is losing its enthusiasm. "This is mostly due to the domestic political situation," she explained. "Turkey's secular elite is fighting for political survival, for maintaining what power it still has. The EU is out of the focus for both the general public and the elite."

Aydin described Erdogan's politics as "anti-European," claiming that Erdogan stopped thinking about the EU as soon as he realized that EU accession is not conducive to sharpening his political profile at home.

Nevertheless, it is still too early to talk about an end to Turkey's European dream, said Aydin. "Turkey is currently going through a period of great uncertainty due to its political problems," she explained. "The attention being given to foreign policy is very low. This means relations with the EU partly depend on domestic political developments in Turkey."

As long as the official negotiations continue, "the view to EU membership remains," she concluded.