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Turkey's European Union Candidacy: From Luxembourg to Helsinki — to Ankara?

Bill Park

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000


At the European Council's Helsinki meeting in December 1999, Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership. However, many obstacles to Turkish EU membership remain. These include domestic political and economic factors, relations with Greece, and some discomfort with the prospect of the inclusion within the EU of an Islamic country. Security considerations may have played a considerable part in securing Ankara's EU policy objective. However, the demise of the cold war has offered Ankara regional alternatives to the pursuit of a European destiny. Greater Turkish involvement in its immediate neighbourhood might contribute to a distancing between Turkish and European security perspectives, paradoxically providing another potential obstacle to Turkish EU membership.


At the European Council (EC) summit held in Helsinki on 11-12 December 1999, Turkey was granted accession status to the European Union (EU). Described as ‘a landmark event’ by Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit in his statement in Helsinki, it represents the latest of a series of steps taken by the Turkish Republic since its foundation in 1923 and aimed at establishing Turkey as an integral part of Europe and indeed of the West as a whole. Many of these measures have sought to transform and modernise the country internally, and have included processes of democratization, secularization and, particularly during the last two decades, ‘marketization’ of the economy. Since 1945, and in the context of the cold war, Ankara’s foreign policy priority has been to achieve affiliation with and membership of western institutions as the external policy expression of this westernizing orientation. Thus, Turkey joined the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development in 1948, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Council of Europe in 1949, became an associate member of the European Economic Community (now EU) in 1963, applied for full membership of the EU in 1987, became a West European Union (WEU) associate member in 1991, and in January 1996 entered into a customs union with the EU.

Security considerations formed the centre-piece of Ankara’s post-1945 diplomatic and political relationships with the West, and especially with Washington [Kuniholm, 1996: Larrabee, 1998: 2]. NATO membership and strategic sponsorship by the United States were seen as vital, both by Ankara and by its western allies, for a country that lay on the southern flank of the Soviet Union, controlled egress from and access to the Black Sea, and linked Europe to (or insulated it from) the oil-rich and crisis-prone Middle East. The West’s readiness to envelope Turkey into its institutional structures served to further encourage Ankara in its commitment to pursue this western path in its diplomatic prioritisation. In cold war Europe, the very idea of the ‘West’ and even of ‘Europe’ had rather loosely come to mean NATO members and other free-market states, in contrast to the excluded communist ‘East’. In this way, Islamic and economically semi-developed Turkey found itself in the West, and affiliated to a raft of European institutions, whilst eastern Germany, Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the like were banished to the ‘East’. In much of every day political, analytical, and journalistic language and discourse, strategic relationships had usurped civilizational factors as the determinent of ‘fault lines’ across the European continent [Park, 1998].

However, although Turkey’s strategic position, Washington’s support, and Ankara’s own dogged determination, had combined to insinuate the country into the cold war West, for many Europeans this had always been a source of some discomfort. European attitudes to Turkey were less exclusively focused than American on strategic factors (Buzan and Diez, 1999: 45-47). Turkey’s human rights record, particularly in the context of the internal conflict being fought against Kurdish separatism, its relative economic backwardness, and its Islamic nature, all nagged at the willingness of Europeans to genuinely recognise Turkey as a fellow European state, even whilst its strategic significance was taken as given. In opening up the prospect of a ‘wider Europe’ embracing the former communist ‘East’, the demise of the cold war raised for Europeans the issue of precisely where Europe’s boundaries, and thus the limits to its institutional membership growth, should be located. The EU’s internal integrationist or ‘deepening’ processes, and the need to encourage and enable Europe’s post-communist societies to reform and develop along western lines, combined with these definitional and identity questions to intensify the focus on civilizational and political factors as the qualifications for European status [Onis, 1999; 135]. The cold war’s end additionally raised in some European (if less so in American) minds questions regarding the continued utility of Turkey as a strategic partner [Lesser, 1993; 101-102].

Viewed in this light, the Helsinki decision is noteworthy, and requires explanation and analysis. To what extent might Turkey’s newly-acquired status as an official EU candidate be regarded as the inevitable and predictable near-culmination of Ankara’s long-term ambition to be regarded as a fully European state? Does it reflect a genuine desire and consensus on the part of the existing membership to embrace Turkey as one of their own? Might the Helsinki decision be seen more as a legacy of the cold war than as a response to current and likely future post-cold war circumstances? Is there a genuine prospect of Turkish EU membership in the foreseeable future, or is the country likely to be confined to the EU’s waiting room for ever? How important a factor have security considerations been, and what role might Turkey play in Europe’s future security architecture and arrangements? These are the questions to which this article will address itself.

  The road to Luxembourg

To understand how the EU arrived at its decision to grant Turkey candidate status, it is necessary both to trace the road from the EU’s rejection of Turkey’s candidature at Luxembourg in December 1997, and to analyze the nature of the Helsinki decision itself. In Ankara, but not to the same extent if at all in the rest of Europe, progress towards eventual EU membership has been viewed as the inevitable and inexorable consequence of Turkey’s progressive and incremental entanglement with the EU since at least 1963 [for background on Turkey-EU relations, see Eralp, 1993; Kramer, 1996a; Muftuler-Bec, 1997, 1999]. 1 In that year, Turkey became an associate member of the EEC, as it then was, as an outcome of the 1959 Turkish application to join, and Ankara has ever since considered that candidature for full membership has been a ‘right deriving’ from this agreement. Thus, in his statement in Helsinki welcoming the decision to grant candidate status, Prime Minister Ecevit asserted that ‘full membership of the European Union is Turkey’s birthright by virtue of Turkey’s historical development, its geography, and its present day attributes as well as the provisions of the 1963 Association Agreement’.

It was a similar perception that had encouraged the government of President Ozal, only recently emerged from the military regime established in 1980, to apply for full Turkish membership in 1987. Described by one analyst as ‘arguably one of the least propitious moments in the history of the Community for such an application’ [Williams, 1993: 55], it was not difficult for Brussels to find reasons - relating both to Turkish conditions and those of the Community itself - for declining to open membership negotiations with Ankara in 1989. Greece, a member since 1981, was well-placed to lobby against Turkey from inside the Community and, assisted by the European Parliament and some of the member governments, it was not until 1995 that it became possible for the EU to negotiate a customs union with Turkey, which came into effect on 1 January 1996. This served to add further impetus to Ankara’s determination to push for full membership, an objective towards which the customs union was seen as the penultimate stage.

The negotiations for a customs union agreement with Turkey had, however, been controversial and politicised [Kramer, 1996b: 61], and by the time if its signing there was some ill-feeling on both sides. There was a growing feeling in Turkey that a customs union which did not automatically lead to full EU membership might simply combine a risk to the survival of Turkish industry with a loss of control or even much scope for input into broad areas of economic policy and regulation, including Turkish trade policy with many of its near neighbours. The link which had been made by many Europeans between the customs union issue on the one hand and Turkish domestic human rights and Kurdish policy on the other had smacked to many Turks of interference in their country’s domestic affairs. This ill-feeling had been compounded still further by the Cyprus issue. The Nicosia (Greek) government of this divided island made its application for EU membership in 1990. Although the Turkish government and the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash declared that this application did not apply to the northern part of the island, Brussels not only decided to begin processing it — in contrast with its treatment of Ankara’s application - but at its 1990 Dublin summit the Community declared that future relations with Turkey would depend on Ankara adopting a more cooperative stance on the Cyprus issue [for background on the EU-Turkey-Cyprus nexus, see Kramer, 1997; Redmond and Pace, 1996; Stavridis, 1999].

In any case, EU-wide political consensus would be required before any offer of membership negotiations could be made, and Turkey - as with all potential EU candidates - would have to fulfil the agreed political and economic ‘Copenhagen criteria’. There was of course no telling when, if ever, these conditions might be met. Furthermore, although the opening up of east and central Europe implied that a more diverse and open EU might eventually emerge, there was also the possibility that Turkey could be pushed to the back of the queue, or excluded from the list of potential candidates altogether as post-cold war Europe redefined itself [Aral, 1997: 87]. As one observer expressed it, ‘Turkey seems to have been centrifuged out to — or even out form — the European periphery’ [Tunander, 1995; 416]. Ankara felt that its cold war contribution to the western alliance should have earned the right to special consideration. Many in Europe, on the other hand, now wondered openly whether a semi-developed Islamic country could in fact be regarded as European - the boundaries to the new Europe had to be set somewhere, after all - and also whether, post-cold war, Turkey’s strategic significance was now so compelling.

It should not have been that surprising, therefore, that at its summit in Luxembourg in December 1997 the EC did not extend formal accession status to Turkey. Based largely on the European Commission’s ‘Agenda 2000’ Report on strengthening the EU which had been released in July, the EC did reconfirm Turkey’s eligibility for eventual EU membership and tasked the Commission to produce a Progress Report - thereby perhaps recognising ‘by implication’ that Turkey was a candidate. 2 But it also listed a raft of familiar political and economic obstacles to granting full accession status. Conceivably, Ankara might have been able to accept the decision if it had not been for the fact that the Luxembourg summit did extend accession status to eleven other states, ten of them former communist entities. 3 To make matters appear even worse from a Turkish perspective, the eleventh officially recognised candidate was (Greek) Cyprus. In addition, none of these states enjoyed a customs union with the EU, which Ankara regarded as a pre-accession arrangement. The EC also decided that actual accession negotiations could begin with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Slovenia - and Cyprus.

It is perhaps testimony to the depth of misperception existing between Ankara and Brussels that, notwithstanding the signals and indications given prior to the summit, the Turkish reaction to Luxembourg was one of deep and genuine anger [Wood, 1999; 103]. Repeatedly condemning Turkey’s exclusion from the list of candidates as ‘unjust and discriminatory’, Ankara suspended political dialogue (though not the customs union) with Brussels. Although Greece was widely regarded as the chief culprit, Ankara boycotted the inaugural meeting of the (pan) European Conference held in London in March 1998. The Turkish government also began wondering out loud about the purpose of a customs union with the EU if it were not linked to a genuine prospect of full membership, as now seemed to be the case. Essentially, Ankara’s post-Luxembourg position was that it was up to Brussels to make amends, and unconditionally. At the same time, many Turks - including Motherland Party leader Mesut Yilmaz - began questioning whether pursuit of the country’s traditional European aspirations was worth the humiliation that it seemed to entail [Wood, 1999: 110]. After all, the end of the cold war had also altered Turkey’s regional context, and perhaps there might be more mileage in pursuing economic and political options in the former Soviet Union (and especially in its Turkic-speaking parts), in the Balkans, and in the Middle East. In part, Ankara’s post-cold war focus on its more immediate regions reflected a positive sense of new opportunities and a recognition that ‘Turkey should look simultaneously to the East and the West in defining its identity’ [Onis, 1995: 48]. But there is also something in the observation that ‘a major objective of Turkey’s foreign policy since the end of the cold war has been to find new strategies to guard against its possible isolation from the emerging economic and political institutions of Europe and to reassert its importance as a regional power’ [Sayari, 1994: 176; also Aybet, 1994: iv; Eralp, 1993, 25; Tunander, 1995, 413].

  From Luxembourg to Helsinki

This crisis in Turkish-EU relations was disturbing to many in Europe. There was a quite widespread feeling that a major turning point in Turkish-EU relations had been reached [Buzan and Diez, 1999: 41]. In Ankara, it has been argued, ‘for the first time there was a clear recognition that there was nothing inevitable about Turkey’s claim to full EU membership’ [Onis, 1999: 125]. 4 Washington too expressed its unhappiness with the EU’s treatment of this strategically important NATO member. Thus, in the almost immediate aftermath of Luxembourg ways were sought to readdress the EU’s approach to Turkey’s candidacy. 5 In any case, the majority of EU states had not voted against Turkey at Luxembourg. This helped the Cardiff EC summit of June 1998 adopt the position that the Commission’s Progress Report on Turkey was in effect a document on preparation for Turkish accession, thereby substantially reinforcing the implication that Turkey was after all a candidate for membership. Even so, it wasn’t enough to persuade Ankara to lift its boycott of political dialogue with Brussels. The prospects for an improvement in the situation also increased with the shift in a number of EU states from Christian to social democratic governments, most notably in Germany. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s government was determined to do whatever it could to rescue Turkish-EU relations, and was greatly assisted in this by a letter sent to Schroeder in May 1999 by Ecevit. Drafted by Turkish and German officials, the letter outlined Turkey’s commitment to implement domestic reforms that would enable the country to meet the Copenhagen criteria. The letter also expressed Ankara’s awareness of Turkey’s singularity, and the consequent requirement for a pre-accession ‘road map’ that would take account of its special situation.

Armed with this reaffirmation of Turkey’s commitment and determination, Germany used its presidency to insert the Turkish question onto the agenda of the EC’s Cologne meeting in June 1999. The best that Germany’s endevours could manage in a gathering largely dominated by the Kosovo crisis was a commitment by the EC to revisit the Turkish case at Helsinki in December. Only Greece, Sweden and Italy opposed the German draft at Cologne. There had been a definite swing in Turkey’s favour since Luxembourg, and this positive shift continued throughout the second half of 1999. In October, the Commission issued a Progress Report on Turkey recommending it be granted accession status, and in the same month the European Parliament also adopted a generally encouraging resolution on Turkish accession. The EU’s commissioner for enlargement Gunter Verheugen, Germany and other member states all worked for a positive outcome to the Helsinki summit. So too did the Clinton administration, most visibly during Clinton’s trip to Turkey in November, to the dismay of some in Europe who saw this as an unwarranted American interference in European affairs. Although appreciative of these efforts and indications of support, Ankara made clear that it would be satisfied with nothing less than the unconditional granting of accession status, and was not entirely confident that the European near-consensus would hold and win the day at Helsinki.

Part of the explanation for Ankara’s caution lay in the controversy surrounding the fate of the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who had been arrested by Turkish security forces earlier in the year in circumstances that provoked considerable anger in Turkey in the face of the behaviour of some EU members, notably Greece, Italy and Germany. His subsequent death sentence was now under appeal, but both the trial and the outcome of the appeal had attracted great interest in Europe. As Helsinki approached, it became clear that Turkey’s chances of becoming a candidate would be scuppered were Ocalan’s death sentence upheld. However, the delay in confirmation of the death penalty, and the hints emanating from Ankara that the government not only opposed it but might put the issue before the European Court of Human Rights - particularly in the event that Turkey be granted accession status at Helsinki [Turkish Daily News (TDN), 7 December 1999] - in effect removed the issue as an obstacle at Helsinki, and possibly created an additional incentive to vote in Turkey’s favour. In mid-January 2000, following the successful outcome in Helsinki, Ankara did indeed put Ocalan’s fate before the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

This left relations with Greece as the major difficulty. In fact, Turkish-Greek relations had entered into a relatively positive phase. Greek assistance to the relief operation in the wake of the massive Turkish earthquake in August contributed substantially to an improvement in the atmosphere between Ankara and Athens - so-called ‘earthquake diplomacy’. UN-sponsored talks between the two sides to the Cyprus conflict had opened in early December, not least as a result of considerable prompting by Washington. Although the differences appeared as large as ever, at least the talks represented some kind of renewal of dialogue. The personal relationship between Turkish foreign minister Ismael Cem and his Greek counterpart George Papandreou was good, and both appeared genuinely committed to improved bilateral relations. The Joint Working Group initiative between the two countries, which had been established in May 1999, had also served to soften the atmosphere and had produced some concrete results. Even so, on the very eve of the Helsinki summit it remained uncertain that a form of words could be found that would be acceptable both to Greece and to Turkey, and the acquiescence of Athens to the proposal to make Turkey an official candidate, even in the face of intense pressure from its fellow EU members and the US, could not be guaranteed.

  Turkey’s Helsinki deal; a candidate in name only?

In the event, the Helsinki decision to offer Turkey EU accession status was accompanied by some frantic and unprecedented diplomacy up to and during the summit itself. The outcome was that although Ankara was recognised as a candidate member, Turkey is left as the only one of the EU’s thirteen candidate members with whom accession negotiations are deemed premature. It was not this aspect of the Helsinki proceedings that caused anguish, however - at least not directly. The earliest date by which negotiations on Turkish membership could begin was in effect set at the end of 2004. This is because, in a barely-disguised reference to Turkey’s Aegean dispute with Greece, the summit urged ‘candidate states to make every effort to resolve any outstanding border dispute’, and where this cannot be achieved via direct negotiations (Ankara’s preference), the dispute should be brought before the International Court of Justice (which is what Athens would prefer, believing the law of the sea regime would favour its case). The Council undertook at Helsinki to review progress on any such disputes by the end of 2004, ‘in particular concerning the repercussions on the accession process’.

Ankara initially interpreted this as both a deadline by which the dispute must be resolved, and an indication that resolution of the Aegean dispute with Greece constituted a precondition before accession negotiations could begin. In fact, the Turks had insisted throughout that they would accept no conditions and that Turkey be treated on an equal basis with other applicants. Accordingly, the Turkish response to the drafting was cool in the extreme. What followed was an intense bout of diplomacy aimed at persuading Ankara to accept the terms of the offer. Telephone calls were received from the German and French leaders, and from Clinton too, who it seems agreed with the Turks that the offer was flawed but argued that it was the best that would be devised at that moment [TDN, 12 December 1999]. Not for the first time, Washington seemed to play an active role in smoothing Turkish-EU relations [TDN, 15 December 1999]. More remarkably, a delegation was sent from the Helsinki summit to Ankara, headed by the EU’s foreign policy High Representative Javier Solana and the Commissioner for Enlargement Gunter Verheugen. In addition, Ecevit received a letter from his Finnish counterpart Paavo Lipponen representing the EC’s presidency, which sought to reassure him that the offer was neither conditional nor an ultimatum. Ecevit finally accepted the wording, and agreed to fly to Helsinki - which he had earlier refused to do unless and until he was satisfied with what the Council had come up with - for the ceremonies.

There were also difficulties over Cyprus. Whereas Turkey had persisted in its refusal to recognise the right of the Nicosia government to speak for the Turkish Cypriot north in its application to the EU, Athens sought assurances that failure to reach agreement with Turkey on Cyprus need not prevent Cypriot accession to the EU. The Helsinki summit concluded that ‘a political settlement will facilitate the accession of Cyprus to the European Union’ but that, should no such settlement emerge, the Council would determine the appropriateness of Cypriot membership ‘without the above being a precondition’. It seems that Ecevit first consulted with the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, before he accepted the EU wording [TDN, 12 December 1999]. Foreign minister Cem acknowledged that the paragraph on Cyprus was the one aspect of the Helsinki conclusions that really rankled in Ankara even after the deal was accepted [TDN, 14 December 1999].

In the event, then, at Helsinki Turkey became one of thirteen candidates for EU membership. This is quite remarkable in the light of the crisis resulting from the Luxembourg decision just two years earlier. The psychological impact of EU candidacy on a country which has often felt isolated and marginalized by its European partners should not be underestimated. It is likely to give a major boost to Turkey’s domestic reform process, of which the decision to submit Ocalan’s case to the European Court of Human Rights was just one early example. Turkey will enjoy access to pre-accession EU financial assistance, and an accession partnership - ‘a road map’ - drawn up and monitored by Brussels, will help steer the country in its preparation for full membership.

But the road ahead is far from clear. Substantive progress in Turkey’s relationship with Greece, of a kind which has eluded diplomats and statesmen for decades, will have to be made. Statements made by both Ecevit and Cem that Ankara’s policy on Cyprus would not alter as a result of Helsinki do not auger well [TDN, 13 and 14 December 1999]. The political and economic reforms which Turkey must implement before there can be a realistic prospect of actual EU membership will need to be far-reaching and will take many years to produce the necessary conditions. As Buzan and Diez have expressed it (1999, 50), ‘in practice, it would require generations before Turkey’s civic and political culture could take the same form as that found in the EU’s core’. This will not be easy for a country still engaged in a destructive and divisive campaign against an internal Kurdish resistance movement, possessing a semi-developed economy, and containing populist nationalist and Islamist political movements which are far from committed to Ankara’s western orientation in either the domestic or foreign policy spheres [Aybet, 1994: 2; Mufti, 1998: 49-50]. And it might be unwise to assume too readily that an EU consensus that Turkey be offered an accession status which sets neither a date for the commencement of negotiations nor offers a timetable for actual membership would necessarily convert seamlessly into a consensus that Turkey actually be allowed to join the EU at some future date. Even apart from Greece, there are forces in Europe that remain quite opposed to the very idea of Turkish EU membership

To take relations with Greece first. In the immediate aftermath of Helsinki, there was if anything an improvement in the already uncharacteristically positive atmosphere between Ankara and Athens. There was an intensified dialogue between Cem and Papandreou, in the Joint Working Groups, and over Cyprus. This took place within the framework of improved Turkey-EU relations, as work began on Turkey’s accession ‘road map’, and the Turkey-EU Partnership Council was able to resume following Ankara’s withdrawal from it in the wake of Luxembourg. Encouraging and welcoming noises emanated from most of Europe’s capitals. Ankara, and Denktas, also argued with some apparent optimism that as a candidate member Turkey would now be better able than previously to present the Turkish Cypriot case to the EU. The invitation to Denktas to visit the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer indeed represented a readiness to recognise the reality of the Turkish Cypriot enclave that was previously absent - and Turks continue to insist on this recognition as a starting point if progress is to be made.

Atmosphere and good will are important ingredients in international diplomacy. However in both countries, and in Cyprus, the legacies of mistrust run deep, and Greek-Turkish differences over the Aegean and Cyprus are in any case substantive and substantial. Furthermore, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, for all Ankara’s insistence that Turkey’s accession status has been achieved without preconditions and on an equal basis, the terms of the Helsinki agreement leave the Greeks well-placed to make things difficult for Turkey should they so choose. Regarding the Cyprus issue, the EC’s Helsinki summit declared that even in the absence of a settlement it might accept the island’s EU membership. Ankara’s position has been both that it does not recognise the right of Nicosia to apply for EU membership on behalf of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) or indeed to represent it at all, and that should (Greek) Cyprus be incorporated into the EU Turkey will take steps to absorb northern Cyprus directly. In the wake of Helsinki, both Ankara and Denktas have continued to insist that there can be no return to Greek Cypriot rule over the Turkish north. In other words, the Turkish side shows no sign of altering its stance.

If this remains the Turkish position, then it is the Greeks who must budge - but they surely have little incentive to do so. Greece is already a EU member, and according to the Helsinki conclusions Cyprus could become one even should no agreement emerge. Few Turks, and certainly not Denktas who is known to be unhappy with the Helsinki deal [TDN, 12 December 1999], are likely to be either reassured or convinced by Turkish President Demirel’s assertion that deadlock over Cyprus would not impede Turkey’s bid for EU membership [TDN, 13 December 1999]. There is plenty of scope for Ankara’s EU aspirations to conflict with support for the TRNC, and the reaction of mainland nationalists and Virtue and True Path party spokesmen to the Helsinki statement on Cyprus suggest that the Turkish government could be in for a very rough ride domestically should the need to confront this dilemma begin to shape up. An alternative scenario is that Ankara and Athens, committed to a deal, nevertheless discover that they are the proverbial dogs being wagged by their respective Cypriot tails.

Greek flexibility would similarly seem to be a prerequisite with respect to the Aegean issue. Ankara is not opposed per se to the issue appearing before the International Court of Justice, but its preference for bilateral negotiations is largely based on its apprehension that a mechanistic application of law of the sea principles to the unique circumstances of the Aegean might be unhelpful to the Turkish case. Already ‘boxed in’ by the numerous inhabited Greek islands that bracket the Turkish coastline, Ankara fears that Greece might additionally be awarded with even more sovereign control of the sea and many of those uninhabited islets, such as Imea-Kardak, which lie closer still to Turkish territory. It is hard to see how any government in Ankara could accept such an outcome diplomatically or domestically. Turkey is also concerned about a range of related issues, resolution of which would require a Greek flexibility which at the time of writing still appeared unforthcoming. These include flight control arrangements in the region, continental shelf resources, and Greek ‘militarization’ of the islands. Will Athens be prepared to give up ground it has hitherto been unwilling to give up, so as to remove obstacles to Turkey’s EU accession? Greek generosity, Turkish courage, or considerable diplomatic creativity on the part of EU and other diplomats might be necessary to ensure that in the wake of the Helsinki agreement this issue does not worsen rather than improve Turkish relations with both Greece and the EU.

  From Helsinki…to Ankara one day?

How, in Turkey’s case, are we to view the relationship between candidacy and eventual membership? As expressed in The Times [9 December, 1999], ‘a cycle race’ approach to EU enlargement, which allowed only those best prepared for membership to open talks, may have been succeeded at Helsinki by ‘a regatta’ approach, allowing (almost) all those who want membership to set sail towards it at the same time but with no presupposition concerning who will arrive, when, and in what order — and, we might add, if at all. On this analogy, however, Turkey is not yet able even to set sail. The reluctance to name firm dates for EU enlargement is understandable and correct, and the comment made by the EU’s enlargement Commissioner, Gunter Verhaugen, that accession status carries no guarantee of eventual membership [TDN, 13 January 2000] surely applies to all candidates. Generally, the candidates express greater optimism than can be found within the EU itself concerning the likelihood of early rather than more distant accession, even though at Helsinki the EC did declare that it might be in a position to take the first decisions on accession at the end of 2002, once (or if) EU institutional reforms have been agreed. However, this does not necessarily mean that EU enlargement is imminent, and there might even be grounds for suspecting that the EU, intentionally or otherwise, has broken the hitherto automatic link between recognition as a candidate member on the one hand and realistic prospects of membership in a reasonable time frame on the other. Any pessimism regarding the date and even the prospect of membership is surely most warranted in the Turkish case.

This is partly because European Christian democrats among others have long been uneasy concerning the prospect of Islamic Turkey ever becoming a EU member [Sanguineti, 1997; Wood, 1999: 110-111], and it is not at all clear that this has now evaporated. Thus in the immediate aftermath of the Helsinki agreement, the President of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, asserted that were Turkey’s EU membership to become imminent, ‘it would not be possible to evade the problem of cultural integration. It will arise, and so will the issue of what criteria to adopt to determine the limits of Europe’s new borders’ [quoted in International Herald Tribune, 11-12 December 1999]. After all, all former Soviet states, including Russia, Ukraine and the largely Turkic central Asians, are members of the OSCE and Partners for Peace with NATO. Turkish membership would extend the EU beyond its unambiguously European confines into Eurasia. Former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing was more blunt when he commented that ‘Turkey is not a European country; it is Asian. It is a respected country, but because of its not being European, Turkey cannot be a full member of the EU’ [quoted in TDN, 14 December 1999]. Some press comment in Europe was also negative about the prospect of Turkey’s EU candidacy on civilisational grounds [for example, Die Welt, 30 November 1999]. Eventual acceptance of Turkish membership will be a political decision, and it will depend not only on progress made by Ankara but also on the political preferences of EU member governments at the moment of choice. Some Turkish commentators have expressed their awareness of this, and as a consequence are not holding their breath [for example, Ilnur Cevik, TDN, 8 December 1999, and Yusuf Kanli, TDN, 12 December 1999].

Turkish foreign ministry officials are generally very well aware of the political and economic distance the country must travel before it could be considered ripe for EU membership. 6 As one Turkish official was reported to have said in the immediate aftermath of the Helsinki summit, ‘We know we are setting out on a difficult journey. Turkey’s economic and social situation is far from EU standards. We are aware that there is a gap between Turkey and the EU, but we will struggle to overcome these differences [TDN, 12 December 1999]. Candidacy status (as distinct from membership itself) is seen as important because it confirms Turkey’s identity as a European state, and because in offering a positive prospect it reinforces the push for domestic change. Nevertheless, it is not always evident that Ankara fully appreciates the potential ramifications for Turkey that arise from EU candidacy. Within a few weeks of Helsinki, the Turkish military engaged in a spat with the Islamist Virtue Party over the relationship of both with Hizballah, which served as a reminder of the role of the military in the country’s domestic politics [TDN, 28 January 1999]. Indeed, on their immediate return from Helsinki, both Ecevit and Cem saw fit to defend the domestic political role of the military-dominated National Security Council [TDN, 14 December 1999]. Ecevit also spoke of his opposition to granting freedom to those who oppose the country’s official secularism, and on behalf of the role the military played in Turkey’s south-east. The point here is not necessarily that policies such as these are misguided given the nature of Turkey’s problems, but they do illustrate how distinctive to European eyes these circumstances can sometimes appear to be. Furthermore, the EU is moving increasingly towards an insistence that the domestic political and social arrangements of member and candidate states follow EU norms and standards — as evidenced by the reaction to the participation in government of Austria’s Freedom Party — and Turkey’s often sensitive public and elite opinion may not yet have appreciated the ‘legitimacy’ of European interest and ‘interference’ in Turkey’s domestic affairs. Yet Turkey’s candidacy will expose the country to this kind of scrutiny even more than in the past.

Even so, some fairly bullish statements emanated from Turkish political leaders after Helsinki. In his statement in Helsinki welcoming the EU decision to grant candidacy to Turkey, Ecevit commented that ‘Some members of the European Union may think it will take many years for Turkey to become a full member. But I am convinced that given the dynamism of the Turkish people and their attachment to democracy, we will achieve this objective in a far shorter period’. Demirel and Cem made similar observations [TDN, 14 and 16 December 1999]. But even the most pro-European of Turkish political leaders are very well aware of the uniqueness of their country’s identity. As foreign minister Cem said, in discussing the country’s Eurasian character, ‘Turkey is not just any candidate. Turkey has a different identity and a very different historical experience than the others’ [TDN, 14 December 1999]. Turkey’s candidature could yet come to raise in the starkest possible form the scope for contradiction between the EU’s enlargement process on the one hand, and its civilizational and institutional deepening on the other.

In a speech he delivered at The Hague just weeks before Turkey’s candidature was finally granted, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Gunter Verheugen said of Turkey’s relationship with the EU, ‘there are the geopolitical and strategic arguments that make it imperative to support Turkey’s affiliation with Europe, bring about democratic change in Turkey, encourage it to change its position on Cyprus and put its relations with Greece on a sound footing.’ But he went on,

were there no history to the Union’s relations with Turkey, we could consider a completely different strategy. We could, for example, form a highly developed association with Turkey, creating a model for dealing with other near neighbours, e.g. Russia, Ukraine or North Africa. History, however, precludes this option. If we deprive Turkey of the prospect of accession, we will be held responsible for everything that goes wrong in the country. Then the question might become, "Who lost Turkey?" ’ (Verheugen, 4 November 1999).

This rather grudging expression of support for Turkey’s application undoubtedly contains an uncomfortable germ of truth. Despite the decades of association, Brussels has never really developed a coherent policy towards Turkey. Rather, the course Turkish-EU relations have taken has been determined by a range of conflicting pressures to which the EU has simply reacted, in a seemingly incremental, directionless and at times contradictory way. The Turkish drive towards Europe, Greek obstruction of it, the country’s domestic travails and European responses to them, Washington’s influence, and strategic considerations have combined to bring Turkish-EU relations to their present, post-Helsinki, position. It is surely a tribute to Turkish diplomacy that the country finds itself a candidate member of the EU despite the general absence of sustained or agreed enthusiasm in Europe over the years. In the final analysis, Turkey has simply been regarded as too important to ‘lose’.

Nevertheless, Helsinki could turn out to be a very positive and creative step. In effect, Turkey’s EU candidacy means that Turkey and the EU have embarked on an adventure which will decide whether a ‘Westernistic’ country - that is, one which aspires to synthesise its own culture with western ideas about political and economic organization — can transform itself sufficiently to be regarded as a ‘western’ country [see Buzan and Diez, 1999:49-50, for this distinction]. Other states which might be regarded as ‘Westernistic’, such as Japan, Ukraine or Russia, are not embarked on a comparable process simply because they are not (yet, in Ukraine and/or Russia’s case?) candidate members of the EU. As such, they are not formally tested against specific ‘western’ criteria in their domestic economic, social and political conduct. Turkey has presented itself as a sort of laboratory for the assessment of all sorts of currently fashionable concepts and theories. What is ‘globalization’, and what is its impact? What are geopolitical and civilizational ‘fault lines’ [Huntington, 1993 and 1996] and can they be overcome? Does development necessarily imply ‘westernisation’? In his statement in Helsinki welcoming Turkey’s new status, Ecevit exclaimed that Istanbul’s bridges,

unite the continents of Europe and Asia…not only in geographic terms, but in the political and cultural senses of the word as well. The Turks have been Europeans for six hundred years. But the Turks are not only Europeans…(Turkey) is living testimony to the interaction between Europe and Asia…It epitomizes vividly the fallacy of the thoughts that underline the thesis of Rudyard Kipling that the east and the west would never meet; and those who think like Mr. Samuel Huntington that the clash of civilizations is inevitable.

Expressions such as this are by no means rare on the part of members of the Turkish policy elite, who are well aware of the journey their country is taking. 7

In its enlargement policy, the EU has embarked on a comparable adventure. Turkey might represent the most extreme case — although in some economic and political respects the EU’s relations with Turkey are more developed and time-honoured than is the case with some of the other candidate members — but in its readiness to open accession talks with states such as Romania and Bulgaria the EU is in effect recognizing that the cold war equating of Europe with its more western half is no longer applicable. Just as there is more than one Turkey, so there is more than one Europe (Pesmazoglu, 1997), and the EU has opened its eyes, albeit with some reluctance, to a Europe that is less developed, less democratized, politically and socially more fragile, Orthodox, Slavic, Balkan. Either the EU will have to transform itself, or the hope must be that accession status will do for these countries, including Turkey, what the EU may have achieved for Greece, Portugal and Spain in the past. As a Turkish analyst has put it, ‘The prospect of full membership…followed by a graduation to full membership…creates a virtuous circle…the possibility of full membership provides the much needed discipline or the external anchor required to legitimise the reform process’ [Onis, 1999: 120]. As such, the time it takes to move from candidacy to full membership might matter less than in the past. It will require patience, and maintenance of the aim, but what Turkey — and others — have been offered is the prospect of an end state which they regard as highly desirable. The hope is that the incentive will prove sufficient to maintain the domestic reform processes necessary. Whether this wider Europe can be incorporated into the ‘deeper’ Europe that the EU is simultaneously constructing is another question [Wallace, 1999].

  European security and Turkey post-Helsinki

We have noted that Turkey’s case for serious consideration by the EU has often rested on broader strategic and political rather than civilizational factors. In the past, strategic considerations may even have persuaded Europe to make allowances for some of Turkey’s political failings [Pesmazoglu, 1997: 154]. Whether this will work in Turkey’s favour in the future is a more complex question. Even during the cold war, Washington gave more weight to Turkey’s strategic value than did the majority of Ankara’s European allies, and in any case Turkish-US relations are less distracted by identity or economic questions [Barkey, 1993: 60]. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Europe has lost still more interest [Lesser, 1993: 101-102]. Turkey’s role in the Gulf conflict may have reminded Washington of its utility in the context of the USA’s Middle Eastern policies [Aybet, 1994: 21; Aykan, 1996], and Ankara’s interest in and proximity to the Caucasus, the Black Sea and Central Asia, offers Washington a partner in the containment of Russian attempts to reassert its influence southwards. But for European states, which have little individual or collective ambition to engage actively in these regions, scenarios such as these largely serve as a reminder that Turkey is in many respects a non-European state located in a high-risk zone of tension [Eralp, 1993: 25; Lesser, 1993; 104; Tunander, 1995: 416]. The Kurdish problem serves a similar purpose [Barkey, 1993], and can render Turkey less a valuable strategic asset than a country potentially embroiled in a wide range of regional conflicts.

The real post-cold war strategic significance of Turkey to Europe lies in the problems that a less stable or more activist Turkey could create. Europe requires a stable, modernizing and democratic Turkey to (hopefully) keep radical Islam from Europe’s very borders. It needs to provide Ankara with incentives to keep its differences with Greece from spilling over into increased tension or armed conflict. It needs a Turkey that is cautious in its regional policies towards the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the Middle East, and which seeks to avoid confrontation with Moscow. The point is not so much what Turkey offers to Europe as what the ‘loss’ of it could entail. In a certain sense, what Europe needs from Turkey is that it be contained, controlled, prudent. Again as Buzan and Diez express it, ‘From a systemic perspective (Turkey) plays the role of an insulator, a peripheral actor in all of the security regions surrounding it, but not centrally involved in any’ [Buzan and Diez, 1999: 47]. This is what Europe wants Turkey to be.

This might not be where Turkey is heading, however. Just as with western Europe, the end of the cold war created circumstances which required Turks to reconsider their country’s core identity. The opening up of Turkic-speaking central Asia and Azerbaijan as a consequence of the break-up of the Soviet Union at first seemed to offer more than just new economic opportunities. It generated a vision of Turkey as the focal point of a new, dynamic, culturally integrated Turkic world [Fuller, 1993]. Economic and political opportunities seemed to beckon elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, not least in Russia and Ukraine, but also in a Balkan region freed from communist rule [Ataov, 1993]. Turkey’s relative economic dynamism, and the collapse of Soviet sponsorship, even appeared to offer Ankara the scope to engage more actively in Middle Eastern affairs. Furthermore, the emergence of public opinion as a factor in the domestic political system, and the rise of nationalist and Islamic political forces, have provided challenges to the European inclinations and preferences of the political establishment [Henze, 1993]. In short, domestic, regional and international developments seemed to offer Turkey rich alternatives to its traditional pursuit of a predominantly European identity within the framework of a somewhat passive Kemalist foreign policy legacy of regional non-involvement. Turkey might be transformed into a focal point, a central hub, for a dynamic Eurasian economic, political and cultural region or - perhaps more accurately - set of overlapping sub-regions.

Turkey’s post-cold war foreign policy towards its proximate regions has been generally multilateralist and constructive, notwithstanding some initial and rapidly deflated euphoria towards the Turkic-speaking world. Turkey is engaged in the Balkan Multilateral Cooperation scheme, alongside and often in close partnership with Greece. It played a full though restrained part in the Yugoslav crisis and in NATO-led operations there. It has developed healthy bilateral relations with many of its Balkan neighbours, notably Bulgaria. In 1990, Ankara proposed the formation of a Black Sea Economic Cooperation Zone, which was formally launched in 1992 with Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Greece. Ankara has struggled, in the face of considerable pressure from Azerbaijan, to maintain some semblence of neutrality, or at least non-involvement, in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. There is at least dialogue with Iran and a commitment on both sides to maintain it. Notwithstanding Turkey’s sympathies and friendship with many of the southern states of the former Soviet Union, and popular Turkish sympathy towards the Chechens, Ankara has avoided provoking Moscow and Turkish-Russian relations are generally businesslike. Both parties have ensured that economic relations have been insulated from political difficulties. Turkish-Ukrainian relations are good. Ankara’s Arab relationships remain generally cool. Even in this sphere, however, a Turkish-Iraqi dialogue has somehow been maintained despite Turkey’s contribution to Washington’s Iraqi policy and Ankara’s own incursions into Iraqi territory in its war against Kurdish separatists. Tension with Syria over the latter’s purported support for the PKK has reduced significantly in the aftermath of the 1998 Adana agreement between the two countries by which Damascus agreed — under considerable Turkish pressure — to cease its support of the PKK and its protection of Abdullah Ocalan. Nevertheless, Ankara’s strategic relationship with Israel, which causes Tehran some anxiety too, combine with historical legacies to ensure a degree of Turkish-Arab coolness perseveres. Even so, political estrangement has not prevented development Turkey’s economic position in the Arab world.

In recent years, then, Turkey has actively sought to play a greater regional role, partly because opportunities have presented themselves, partly because circumstances have appeared to remove passivity as a viable option, and partly because prior to Helsinki Ankara was beginning to despair of its European prospects. Whether EU candidacy encourages Ankara to disengage from its more regional agendas has still to be seen, but this would appear unlikely. Domestic and regional shifts have combined to give Ankara’s more intense regional focus a permanent air, and the Turkish policy elite can appear highly committed to the country’s Eurasian perspective. This results in the paradox that just as Ankara finds itself genuinely able to develop its Asian or Eurasian foreign policy alternatives, it finds itself in what had become the increasingly unexpected position of a candidate for EU membership. The euphoria over this makes it appear churlish to raise the question of whether Europe really does now represent Turkey’s best foreign policy option. A close strategic understanding with Washington and a free trade agreement with the EU, with which more than half of all Turkish trade takes place, might have left Ankara more free to pursue its Eurasian interests and destiny [Onis, 1995]. An interesting question, therefore, is what ramifications Ankara’s regional policies might have for the country’s renewed European attachment, particularly in the light of the EU’s struggle to develop a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

Ankara would argue, of course, that Turkey’s Eurasianism means it is destined to be both a European and a regional player, and that Turkey can act as bridge between the two. There is something in this argument, at least in those areas where Turkey’s local relationships are cooperative and multilateral rather than suspicious and conflictual. The Balkan region might serve as a case in point. The development of a CFSP might encourage Europe to throw off the insularity it has generally become used to, and Turkey could conceivably become a channel via which Europe asserts itself beyond its own geographical confines. From a more general European perspective, however, Turkey’s region, and the interests Ankara has there, are quite distinct from those of core Europe. Whereas Europe might seek stability, regional friendships, to play a neutral role in local disputes, secure supplies of oil, trade even with awkward local states, and the like, Turkey’s regional engagement might be of a different nature. Its relationships are underpinned by historical legacies, cultural factors, more immediate territorial and security concerns. Would Turkish and European perspectives coincide on Eurasian issues? On Armenia for example? Or on Turkish engagement in a Caucasus or Central Asian region still regarded by Moscow as its own back yard? Would a more active European engagement in the Middle East be compatible with the direction Turkish-Israeli relations might take? In fact, simply to ask these questions is to alert ourselves to the possibility that a more assertive European foreign and security policy might find itself at odds not only with Ankara but with Washington. Washington rather than Brussels might remain as Ankara’s more natural regional strategic partner and sponsor.

At the Berlin North Atlantic Council meeting in 1996, it was agreed that ESDI should be developed within the NATO alliance. This was reaffirmed at NATO’s fiftieth anniversary summit in Washington in April 1999. Ankara has generally lent its support to this ‘ESDI-within-NATO’ formula because, as a European NATO state, Turkey would be able to fully participate in and contribute to the emergence of a European pillar within the alliance. It had been understood that although the mechanism for this might be the West European Union (WEU), of which as a non-EU state Turkey is only an associate member, this nevertheless afforded Turkey the right to contribute to and participate in WEU missions as a full member, up and including participation in the command of any such operation. For Ankara, this constituted a satisfactory arrangement. 8

However, since the Berlin meeting the EU seems to have been developing a parallel course, towards a distinct EU-based capacity to conduct missions [Cornish, 1997: 81-103]. The development of CFSP, or European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI), has become an integral part of the EU’s ‘deepening’ process. As a non-EU member, Turkey — along with similarly-placed Norway, Iceland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary — has feared that it could be excluded from any EU-based pillar within NATO. In this, non-EU countries have had the support of Washington, as a consequence of which the April 1999 NATO summit communiqué stated that the alliance attached ‘the utmost importance to ensuring the fullest possible involvement of non-EU European allies in EU-led crisis response operations’. Although there had been quite a squabble in Washington, the EC seemed to take its Europeanist aspirations a stage further at both its June 1999 Cologne and December 1999 Helsinki meetings. Turkish reaction to the EC’s ESDI-related deliberations was very negative in both instances. By Helsinki, the EC was in a position to assert its determination ‘to develop an autonomous capacity to take decisions and, where NATO as a whole is not engaged, to launch and conduct EU-led military operations’. Although the EC tasked the Portuguese EC presidency to develop ideas on the mechanisms for EU-NATO consultation, and stressed at Helsinki that non-EU NATO (and non-NATO) states might be fully involved in EU-led missions under certain circumstances, the Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement in the immediate aftermath of the Helsinki meeting which rather baldly stated that ‘the understanding prevailing in the EU is still far from satisfactory as far as the participation on non-EU European allies is concerned’ [quoted in TDN, 16 December 1999]. At Cologne the EC gave itself until the end of 2000 to make the appropriate decisions, at which juncture it is envisaged that the WEU would lose its raison d’etre, as foreseen by the Amsterdam Treaty. Indeed, the creation of the post of High Representative of the EC for CFSP, and the high-profile appointment to it of former NATO secretary-general Javier Solana (who was also made secretary-general of the WEU), was meant to both facilitate these changes and symbolise their significance.


Of course, the most likely outcome is that, at least in the short term, some NATO-EU fudge will emerge which will satisfy few but enable the avoidance of serious rifts. Indeed, an indication of this came with Turkey’s lifting of its opposition to the transfer of command of NATO’s KFOR to the EU’s Eurocorps, in return for more substantial Turkish participation in the command of the force. In effect, Ankara has been able in this instance to utilise its NATO membership as a lever to participate in EU operations [TDN, 5 February 2000]. In any case, at this point in time the EU is concerned only with the capacity to conduct so-called Petersberg missions such as humanitarian operations, peace-keeping and crisis management. Even this modest ambition could founder on inadequate military capabilities and internal political disagreements between the EU’s members. Nevertheless, the steps the EU is taking towards the development of a capacity for autonomous military action is yet another indication of Europe’s commitment to a process of ‘deepening’, a process which is driven by internal forces and dynamics largely beyond NATO’s realm. Thus it would be short-sighted of Ankara to pin hopes on ESDI failure, and indeed there is little sign at the moment of this happening. However, Turkey is unlikely to become a full EU member for some time yet, if ever. Furthermore, the form Turkey’s future involvement in Europe’s security arrangements takes may ultimately be more dependent on the country’s long-term EU accession prospects than on any form of words NATO and EU diplomats can devise in the shorter-term. It would surely be an extreme paradox, however, were security issues — whether they be shorter-term tensions stemming from the EU’s ESDI, irreconcilable differences with Greece, or contrasts in the broader security perspectives of Turkey on the one hand and the majority of EU states on the other — prove to be the determining obstacle in the way of Turkey ever fulfilling its European destiny. Put another way, Turkey, more than any other EU candidate, might force the tension between the EU’s ‘deepening’ and ‘widening’ projects to breaking point. And security could be the issue over which the break occurs.


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Statement of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in Helsinki on Turkey’s candidacy to the EU, 11 December 1999.

Verheugen, Gunter, The second decade towards a new and integrated Europe, Den Haag, 4 November 1999.


Note 1: This passage is also partly based on official Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) documents, and interviews conducted there by the author in MAY 1999. Back.

Note 2: an expression used by a senior Turkish foreign ministry official, interview, Ankara, 24 May 1999. Back.

Note 3: Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Back.

Note 4: an impression confirmed in interviews, MFA, Ankara, 24 May 1999. Back.

Note 5: much of the following comment is based on press reports.Back.

Note 6: interviews, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ankara, 24 May 1999.Back.

Note 7: as evidenced during interviews conducted by the author in Ankara, May 1999. Back.

Note 8: interview with senior MFA official, Ankara, 24 May 1999. Back.