The European Union and Turkey: Transforming the European Periphery into European Borderlands

Written by | Friday, March 25th, 2016

Meltem Müftüler-Baç (Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies)

Turkey has always been a key player on the European periphery. It has been part of the European alignment in a way already since the postwar period. It is one of the founding members of the Council of Europe and in 1952 it became a member of NATO. Since 1963, Turkey has been gradually involved in the European Common Market and these efforts culminated in the finalization of the customs union for industrial products in 1995. In 1999, Ankara acquired a candidate status for EU membership and in 2005 accession talks were initiated.

However, had Ankara wanted to have the opportunity to become part of the Union, it would have had to meet the conditions set by Brussels. Thus, Turkey had to introduce political reforms, especially in the area of the rule of law, public sector or fundamental human rights. All these changes have gradually transformed the country from a European periphery to a European borderland. Turkey is significantly different from most other countries in Europe’s immediate neighborhood. It is a politically, economically and militarily strong actor of a great geopolitical significance.

Thus, a significant power asymmetry is absent in the EU-Turkey relations, which is otherwise very typical in the relations between the Union and its other neighbors. Turkey was willing to undergo extensive political reforms because it found the EU attractive for a long time, especially as an economic partner. But then, 2008 came along and the economic crisis hit the EU more than Turkey. Turkey was able to diversify its foreign trade and redirect it to new markets, for example to its neighbors in the Middle East or the BRIC countries. Although the EU remains an important trading partner for Turkey, its importance is steadily declining. Moreover, Brussels has also lost its trustworthiness in the eyes of the Turks. The protracted accession talks are accompanied by vetoes of EU Member States, freezing of the talks on eight chapters that are part of the accession process, as well as by controversial political statements.

These factors have resulted in the loss of the EU’s ability to transmit political norms and rules onto Turkey. The changes in the Turkish government and the loss of the EU’s attractiveness and credibility have contributed to the fact that the transformation of the periphery into borderlands has slowed down after 2011 whereby this process has since headed rather in the opposite direction. Europe’s influence is declining and in lieu of the rules of democratization, elements of authoritarianism are appearing.

(The study can be downloaded here:

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