There are several reasons, more or less true and reasonable, which could explain why the application of Turkey to the European Union seems to be destined to gradually sink into oblivion. But only one sufficiently satisfied our taste for cynic political reasoning.
The current diplomatic tensions between Turkey and the EU countries are the apex of a long climax whose far less spectacular dynamics can be understood and summarized as follows.
Cultural and geographical arguments
“Turkey is not a European country” is probably the most overused statement against Turkish membership. However, even if we interpreted it in geographical (Anatolia is part of the Asian Continent) rather than in cultural terms (the great majority of its citizens are Muslim, clumsily assuming religion as a valid proxy of culture), we would incur in some risk of incoherence. In fact, there is little debate around whether to potentially accept or not countries such as Albania, a Muslim majority European nation; or the Caucasian republics of Georgia and Armenia, Christian but situated on Asian territories. Ironically, maybe Turkey is just “unlucky” in not satisfying either of this two basic requirements for membership (“choose at least one to submit your application”).
Leaving aside this farce and moving our attention toward more serious and concrete concerns, we could conclude that the Erdogan’s government actually gave the European public something to worry about. Scarce human rights protection, perhaps more than apparent return to Islamist politics and quite aggressive and ambitious foreign policy are clear examples, not to mention institutional and political instability. Furthermore, Turkey has refused to acknoweledge the Republic of Cyprus (a EU member state since 2004) and the last negotiation with the Greek and the British foreign ministers failed again in trying to solve the dispute around the island (still ongoing since 1974).
More specifically, by looking at articles 2 and 49 of the Treaty on European Union we can easily appreciate how Any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them may apply to become a member of the Union”. Such values are in fact those of “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”. Again, the interpretation of what constitutes a “European State” is left open in the text but the most legally accredited one is that any country that is in compliance with the set of values stated above is potentially a European State. This (quite tautological) solution offers ground to further sources of controversy. An imaginary application of Australia, which is in tune with Article 2, neocolonialism sentiments aside, would at least sound strange to someone. Therefore, neither geography nor culture nor EU Law can alone provide us with an all-embracing rationale. Maybe, a carefully weighted mix of the three would be of some help.
In addition, we may infer that there could be some kind of an interest for EU countries in maintaining the status quo as it is due to geopolitical incentives: the strategic position of Turkey makes it an ideal buffer zone between Europe and the turbulent MENA region. The EU-Turkey agreement on management of migration flows can be easily interpreted with this rationale.
The EU and Turkey are linked by a Customs Union agreement, which came into force on 31 December 1995. Turkey is the EU's 4th largest export market and 5th largest provider of imports. The EU is by far Turkey's number one import and export partner. Turkish economy is growing at a quite faster and more solid pace with respect to the EU countries which are struggling to exit a period of crisis.
The graph shows the GDP growth rates of France and Turkey in the years 2009-2015.
The difference is quite evident.
However, it is still true that Turkey is affected by consistent inequality in the distribution of wealth and income and generally is still considered a developing country. As a consequence, Turkey’s compliance with the Copenhagen Criteria (the basic economic convergence requirements to full EU membership) has often been put under doubt. This can potentially turn out into an obstacle in the path toward full EU membership.
In fact, Turkey could become a net recipient of EU development funds and there would be plenty of concerns regarding the labour market.
The graph shows the GINI coefficients of Turkey, Germany, France and Italy in the years 2009-2013.
The GINI coefficient as measure of inequality of distribution of income and wealth. It is a score between 0 (the most homogeneous distribution) and 1 (the most unequal one). The differences are again very clear.
However, such considerations are again affected by a hypocrite bias: the great enlargement of the Union toward Eastern Europe was carried out in far more precarious conditions and, sometimes, we could say, with excessive hurry. Turkish GDP per capita is now actually higher than Romanian and Bulgarian ones.
All the considerations above, despite being to a certain extent true, fail in completely convincing who is writing (and, hopefully, who is reading). There’s the sneaky feeling that something is missing in our approach to the comprehension of the question. Let’s imagine for a moment a hypothetical Turkey not characterized by any of the concerns expressed above. Would this fictional country be easily recognized full EU membership? The answers would be likely negative.
The graph below shows the evolution of total population of France, Germany and Turkey in the years 1995-2015.
The graph below shows the population growth rates of Turkey and the Euro Area between in the years 1995-2015.
A quite young and populous country joining a European Union affected by problems of aging population may seem a win-win situation. With any probability, we would easily fall prey of optimistic views of this kind if we forgot how the Council of the European Union, which can be considered as the most politically important and powerful EU institution, votes.
The Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007 and in force since 2009 introduced voting criteria based on two thresholds : in order for a proposal to pass in the Council, a voting coalition which represents, at least, 55% of member states and 65% of the total EU population must approve it. Demography actually plays a big role.
The graph shows the distribution of votes in the Council before and after November 2014.
It is easy to guess why potentially the most populous member state (the Turkish population is expected to overcome the German one in the next few years) would not be welcomed by the previous major players in EU politics, i.e. Germany and France.
We should imagine, in fact, a new bar on the left of the picture, equal, if not a bit taller, to the German one (“DE”). Turkey would become the latest and the most powerful member state sitting in the Council at the same time. this huge and sudden population intake would radically reduce the relative demographic, and hence political weight of the present members. Potential consequences are everything but trivial.
We can appreciate how the entrance of a player of such political weight could radically modify the present coalition dynamics by giving to junior partners an alternative to the old gravitational centres; how both foreign and domestic policies could shift; how geopolitical interests would change and, finally, a paradox would come to our minds:
Concluding, we can state that the demographic criterion established by the Lisbon Treaty, reasonably aimed at granting the democratic principle of people representation in the Council, results into an insidious obstacle to application of new populous members . Until the voting system changes, there will be little political incentives to further broadening of the Union. In other words, till the EU will not complete its process of full integration, resulting into a solid and stable system of political institutions, less sensitive to its own members’ demography, the entrance of populous states such as Turkey can be a bilateral and potentially dangerous process of convergence, a risk we may want to avoid.