Is Turkey likely to join the EU?

26 May 2016
In brief: Turkey is a candidate to join the EU. But it’s unlikely to join any time soon. There are tensions to be resolved over Cyprus before aspects of the negotiation can even be opened, and the EU has concerns over Turkey’s human rights record. If and when the negotiations finish, Turkey must get approval to join from each existing EU member. Some are opposed to, or planning to hold a referendum on, Turkish membership. Support for membership among the Turkish population has declined since 2010.

Turkey has featured heavily in the EU referendum debate.

The Vote Leave campaign has put forward immigration projections based on Turkey, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia joining the EU in 2020 and Defence minister Penny Mordaunt said that the UK would not be able to prevent Turkey from joining.

On the Remain side, David Cameron has maintained that the UK does have a veto and stated that suggestions otherwise were “very misleading”.

Does the UK have a veto?

Yes. Under the EU’s rules for the accession of new countries, approval of each member country in the Council of the European Union is required.

"Council of the European Union"

Where government ministers pass laws, generally agreed with the European Parliament. Entirely different from the "European Council" of government leaders, and from the "Council of Europe" which is not part of the EU at all.

If accession is unanimously approved, an applicant country must then get the agreement of each existing member on the ‘conditions of accession’. Professor Damian Chalmers describes the process as a ‘double veto’.  

Would the UK exercise its veto?

This would depend upon the policy of the government in office at the relevant time. At the moment, it is government policy to support Turkey in becoming a member.

The Prime Minister has publicly supported Turkish accession and in 2010 was reported to express frustration at the lack of progress in negotiations.

Recent announcements have switched the focus from desirability to the likelihood of accession, with Mr Cameron stating that Turkey might not be able to join ‘until the year 3000’.

It would also depend on the government’s satisfaction with the negotiations. The Council would likely push for consensus before facing a vote with possible vetoes.

How close is Turkey to completing negotiations?

In order for any country to be eligible for accession, negotiations on signing up to all the EU’s rules must be completed in 35 ‘chapters’.

Turkey first applied to join what was then the EEC in 1987. It was declared an eligible candidate in 1997. Negotiations were formally opened in 2005.

Now, in 2016, negotiations have closed on just one out of 35 chapters‘science and research’, which was completed in 2006, the year after it was opened.

Of the remaining 34 chapters, 14 have been opened for negotiation. 

In 2006, the EU decided that until Turkey agrees to remove obstacles to free movement of goods (including transport restrictions) between it and Cyprus, no more chapters will be provisionally closed. Eight chapters (including areas fundamental to EU law, such as free movement of goods and right of establishment and freedom to provide services) will not even be opened.

The European Commission’s 2015 Turkey report noted that Turkey still refused to allow free movement of goods and travel with Cyprus, and that there was “no progress on normalising bilateral relations with the Republic of Cyprus”.

The 20 not-yet opened chapters include some of the most controversial chapters issues such as free movement for workers, and human rights (including ensuring that judges are independent).

What role do human rights concerns play?

The EU has raised significant human rights concerns in the 2015 Turkish report, noting ‘significant backsliding in the past two years notably in the areas of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly’.

The report also found problems with discrimination and protection of vulnerable minorities. These concerns fall foul of the human rights conditions of accession.

What about the EU-Turkey migration deal?

As part of the deal for tackling the migration crisis, in which Turkey agreed to the resettlement of refugees in its territory, the EU agreed to accelerate accession negotiations.

The Commission says that ‘preparations are now underway to progress towards the opening of five chapters.’ It is not clear when these chapters will be opened, or how long negotiations on them will take.

Political obstacles to Turkish membership

Other EU members have strongly opposed Turkish membership. Both France and Austria will put the question of Turkish accession to a referendum, so Turkey would need to get approval from the popular vote in each country.

This would make vetoes from those countries likely, as they are amongst the more Turkey-sceptic members.

A House of Lords Select Committee report on the European Union in 2006 found that a ‘majority of people in the EU-25 are opposed to Turkey's accession, with opposition in Austria, France and Germany reaching 70 per cent or more.’ Opposition to Turkish membership across the EU rose from 2008-2010, from 55-59%. There don’t seem to be more recent figures available.

Turkey’s own appetite for joining is variable but seems to be declining. Of the five candidate countries it consistently has the lowest numbers in Eurobarometer surveys expressing support for membership.

The latest autumn 2015 survey (only available in French) showed 37% of respondents in Turkey believing membership would be a good thing. This is up from 28% in 2014, but still down compared to 59% ten years ago.

A higher proportion56%said that they believed that their country “would benefit” from membership, although that figure was also higher in the past.


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