The accession of Turkey to the European Union seems to be an endless process. In 1999, the European Union recognized Turkey as a potential candidate and since 2001 the Turkish government adopted measures[1] to adapt to the European standards. Formal negotiations began in 2005 but, after several years, Turkey still does not figure in the list of the EU Member States.

Joining the European Union implies that States must comply with political, economic and social standards and, although Turkey has acceded to the various conventions, the issue remains unresolved. One of the cornerstones of the European Union is represented by the protection of human rights. History teaches us that the Turkish state is the result of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, a real melting pot of races, cultures and religions that have co-existed for centuries. In 2001, the National Committee for Human Rights was established and, in 2003, the Protocol of the European Convention on human rights was ratified. The same year, the death penalty was abolished. Since 2002, from a political point of view, Turkey has maintained continuity with the advent of the AKP (Justice and Development party) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who managed to lift the country from the economic crisis that started in 2001. The Prime Minister launched the “Neo-Ottoman policy” consisting in a series of reforms regarding the public and private sectors, and the tax system. These reforms consisted in changing the public administrations, the private sector and increasing investments from abroad. He also tried to establish a peace process with the PPK separatists party (Kurdistan Worker’s Party). The results of these policies were the increase of GDP, the reduction of public debt and the slowing down of inflation[2].

In 2007, it was a big year of Turkey. The country reconfirmed Erdogan’s successful leadership. Abdullah Gul was also elected as President of the Islamic Republic. The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Union reviewed the new report on the country’s candidacy to become a member state and Turkey invaded Iraq to attack the PPK positions. In this last event, the US government supported Turkey. This political phase could be considered as a secular ruling plan. In 2009, the new minister Davutoglu planned a new foreign policy. He developed the “policy of zero problems with our neighbors” that consisted in the harmonization of cultural, economic and political relations with neighbor States. This approach aspired to create integration, stability and peace in the area[3]. In particular, this policy acted to solve the ancient conflicts with Armenia and Greece. It had the aim to establish cross-border cooperation relationships. It also has the goal to establish mediation in order to solve regional conflicts as the Balkan one.

With the 2011 elections, the AKP reconfirmed its leadership. Once again, Erdogan proposed a strong program focused on three domestic issues. First of all, it aimed to attack the ancient military leadership who played an important role during the Ataturk era. This attitude was highly criticised by the EU. Secondly, the government started an Islam campaign to strengthen the religious values, in particular in the school contexts. Lastly, it tried to solve the old problems with the Kurdish community by building a relationship on “common Islamic values”[4]. The promotion of Islam created ambiguities between the Prime Minister’s previous ways of ruling. The establishment of a democratic system perfectly balanced with Islam was a model for the Arabic States. The year 2011 represented the beginning of a complex political era. It was characterized by the Arab Spring in Maghreb and in the Middle East, and by the economic crisis of the Eurozone. These factors slowed the growth of Turkey and changed the global political panorama.

After the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the foreign policy of Turkey became incompatible with the political arena. Before 2011, Turkey built economic relationships with Iran, Syria and Libya. For this reason, Turkey did not take position against governments hit by the revolutions. Nevertheless, this attitude of Turkey resembled a strategy to save their economic interests which contrasted with the role of mediator that the State promised to gain through the zero problems policy. The example is represented by the conflict between Turkey and Syria: the civil society started to protest against Bashar al-Assad who responded with the repression of the civilian. Turkey criticized that repression by supporting the opposition forces of al-Assad’s leadership. This intervention provoked an increase in the number of Syrian refugees in the Turkish neighbourhood. As the time went by, the growth of refugees started to be a problem for the Turkish inhabitants because of the conflict between the Syrian rebels and the Turkish militaries. Still to this day, the conflict persists. The Arab Spring unlighted the fact that the Turkish model could not be applied to Arab realities like Egypt or Tunisia. The attempts of democratisation realized after the revolutions failed, leaving Turkey the only reality where Islam and democracy are mixed. Internally, 2011 represents a change in policy. The AKP began to apply restrictions on the freedom of the press, freedom of speech, alcohol consumption and the use of the internet. As of 2012, it began to introduce reforms to restore Islamic values. The Turkish discontent reached its peak in 2013 during the removal of the Gezi Park in order to build the Taksim military barracks in Ottoman-stylethat had been demolished in 1940. During a protest organized against the removal of the park, the police attacked protesters using harsh repression which caused many victims and deaths. This attitude, implemented by the government, is a clear example of the violation of human rights.

The Gezi Park became the symbol of protest against the restrictions imposed by the government[5]. Could this event be considered an echo of the Arab spring? The Gezi Park protest represents the beginning of several protests to highlight the discontent of the Turkish Society. Protests in Turkey, after Gezi Park, continued to occur especially against a series of scandals that have seen the participation of several members of government. Nevertheless, in August 2014, the Turkish society reconfirmed the previous government by electing Erdogan, for the first time, President of Turkey. During 2014, the control on media content remained under harsh government supervision. There has been an increase in the number of journalists arrested. As a matter of fact, some days ago, Erdogan ordered the arrest of a group of journalist of “Zaman”, the most diffused Turkey daily journal[6]. Nowadays, the political position of Turkey toward ISIS remains ambiguous. The government is suspected of supporting the fundamentalist organization in Syria and Iraq. This probable alliance has economic roots because Turkey is the main importer of petrol from Syria and Iraq. From a political point of view, Turkey aspires to destroy the Assad power and to avoid the eventual creation of Kurdistan[7]. This current Turkey position clashes with the basic principles of the EU and contrasts with NATO.

The process of secularisation in Turkey has ancient roots. It started with Ataturk during 1925-1938 During the Ataturk era, Islam was rejected in the mists of trying to create a Western State. After Ataturk, Islam was reintroduced in the State system, making Turkey a unique example of a State in which modernisation can coexist with Islam. This is what Erdogan affirmed after the 2011 elections. The accession of Turkey in the Eurozone implies a lot of advantages for the European Union. Turkey could be seen as the bridge between Europe and the Arab world for its strategic geopolitical position. This could bring many advantages: trade cooperation, the creation of new international political balance and a stronger international security.

Starting negotiations for the Turkey accession in the Eurozone has determined a fast modernisation period, the diffusion of new values and the impairment of the military role[8]. On the other hand, the analysis of the political strategy in the last 10 years highlights many contradictions. Erdogan started to focus on a democratic policy by trying to strengthen cross-border relationship. But, after the Arab Spring, Erdogan’s policy started to be more restrictive and less democratic. Although Europe exalted the Turkish system as an example of the modernisation of the Arabic World, the negotiations with the European Union are still blocked due to the fact that there are several issues which remain unresolved. For example, the recognition of Greek Cyprus is part of the EU since 2004. The resolution of relations with the Kurdish minority and the recognition of the Armenian genocide also remain a problem.

After the political restriction applied during the last years, nowadays, Turkey is among the countries where the press freedom cannot be defined as such. The government applies a strict control on television, internet and press. A lot of journalists have been arrested during the last week. In 2013, Turkey has been the country with the highest number of journalists imprisoned. This attitude definitely clashes with the basic principles of the European Union. Furthermore, the relationship between Turkey and ISIS slowed down the negotiations with the EU. From an international point of view, the ambiguity of Turkey towards ISIS could be considered a legitimation of the terrorism.

Lucia Vasta

Master’s Degree in Languages and Economic and Legal Institutions of Asia and North Africa (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice)


[1] Opening of 6 chapters of the Acquis: Right of Establishment & Freedom To Provide Services, Company Law, Financial Services, Information Society & Media, Statistics, and Financial Control.

[2] Giancarlo Casà, Profondità strategica e zero problemi dell’instabile labirinto mediorientale, “Geopolitica”, 10 January 2013 – http://www.geopolitica-rivista.org/20053/profondita-strategica-e-zero-problemi-nellinstabile-labirinto-mediorientale/.

[3] Policy of zero problems with our neighbours, “Republic of Turkey – Ministry of Foreign Affairs” – http://www.mfa.gov.tr/policy-of-zero-problems-with-our-neighbors.en.mfa

[4] Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby, Erdogan’s grand vision: rise and decline, “World Affairs Journal”, March-April 2013 – http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/erdogan%E2%80%99s-grand-vision-rise-and-decline.

[5] Omer Sener, The Gezi protests, polyphony and ‘carnivalesque chaos’, in “Reflections on Taksim – Gezi Park. Protests in Turkey”, Gokay Bulent and Ilia Xypolia (ed.), Keele European Research Centre, Keele, 2013 – http://www.keele.ac.uk/journal-globalfaultlines/publications/geziReflections.pdf.

[6] Filippo Cicciù, La retata di Erdogan in Turchia: contro Gulen più che contro la stampa, “Limes”, 17 December 2014 – http://temi.repubblica.it/limes/la-retata-di-erdogan-in-turchia-contro-gulen-piu-che-contro-la-stampa/67554.

[7] Luciano Tirrinozzo, Perché la Turchia combatte i curdi e aiuta l’ISIS, Le accuse di complicità col nemico e ora anche i bombardamenti contro i curdi dimostrano che Ankara combatte una guerra parallela, “Panorama”, 15 October 2014 – http://www.panorama.it/news/oltrefrontiera/perche-turchia-combatte-i-curdi-aiuta-islamico/.

[8] Amanda Paul, Turkey-UE relations: time to rebuild trust, “European Policy Centre”, 19 October 2012 – http://www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_3021_turkey-eu_relations.pdf.