The Saturday Debate: Should Turkey be admitted to the EU?

Here’s your starter for ten in our Saturday slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate:

In all the recent controversy surrounding David Cameron’s recent foreign policy pronouncements some of the substance has perhaps been lost: here was the leader of a major European country unequivocally urging that Turkey be admitted as a member of the European Union.

This has tended to be an uncontroversial view among the British political classes, who regard Turkey as a vital fulcrum in reconciling the West and the Islamic world. It is far less popular among the voters of Europe, as a 2006 EU Barometer survey discovered (see page 224), where there are widespread fears of increased immigration, lack of cultural affinity, that Turkey would be a drain on EU resources, and an unstable influence on European politics.

Most liberals will dismiss these arguments comfortably enough. But there is another concern about Turkey’s EU membership, at least from the perspective of those who still dream of closer European integration. It’s captured well by The Economist’s columnist, Bagehot:

In Brussels, it is common to hear grumbling that British support for Turkish membership is essentially a plot to broaden the EU so much that it can never achieve deeper political and economic union. I think that is unfair, but not wholly. There are certainly British Eurosceptics whose support for Turkey reminds me of the old adage: you can also kill a cat with cream. If some of them could admit China, I suspect they would.

I am sure Mr Cameron is sincere in his support for Turkey. But he also has a vision of the EU as a relatively loose trading alliance of nation states, rather than a deeper economic or political union. That vision is both compatible with Turkish entry and sits at one end of the spectrum of opinion within the EU.

The question is: at what end of the spectrum should British liberals want to sit? In favour of EU membership on principled diplomatic grounds? Or against it on principled integrationist grounds?

Over to you…

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Yes, any country that is geographically part of Europe should be given the chance to join the European Union if they wish and that includes Turkey ……. ERR… wait a minute. let me just check the map

  • In my view, so long as Turkey continues to militarily occupy one third of an EU member state the question of their admission shouldn’t even be on the agenda.

    It’ll never happen anyway. Whatever the arguments for or against, there’s simply no way that Turkey could be admitted without fatally undermining popular public support for the EU in the majority of member states.

  • A qualified yes.

    I think the accession process has led to many very good reforms in Turkey: still a way to go, but it’s a lot more liberal country in many ways than it was, say, 15 years ago – as far as I can tell at any rate. Even for that reason one has to say we can’t dangle the carrot in front of their nose, ask them to carry out reforms and then withdraw the chance for membership regardless. Also, in principle, it would be good to have Turkey in the EU: it’s at least partly in Europe, it would make it easier for all to face up to the cultural diversity that exists in Europa in any case (but is often glossed over), it is no doubt a rising economic power, as well as a increasingly important player in the Middle East, too.

    There are, however, some caveats, too, which need to be sorted out very carefully.
    – I think we have to do this slowly. I don’t think they have yet fully signed up to what I’d call crucial European principles such as human rights, especially treatment of minorities – in spite of huge improvements. There are also constitutional issues (role of the army in the constitution), foreign policy issues, especially Cyrpus, etc.
    – not sure how far Turkey already converges economically. We can’t swallow a country of that size if it can’t carry its own economic weight, so to speak.
    – Turkey’s eastern border. This shouldn’t be an obstacle for Turkey, but the EU will have to consider very carefully how it handles having a border with Iraq, Iran and the Caucasus region. E.g. will this oblige us to consider membership for Armenia or Georgia, too (note problems with Russia)?

    Finally, I wonder more generally, whether the EU should start building closer relations around the Mediterranean. In a way, the Mediterranean is a natural economic zone, which works very well when it works closely together (think Roman Empire). I am NOT advocating EU membership for North Africa, just closer co-operation. If something of that kind existed,. Turkey might have a choice how closely it wants to be associated and might choose a compromise position. But ultimately, it should be Turkey’s choice, and if it still wants full membership, it should get a realistic chance to obtain it.

  • paul barker 7th Aug '10 - 4:56pm

    Yes, of course. Europe is more an idea than a place & Turkey is at least as close to our values as Italy or Austria. Cyprus has to be sorted but that is one of those disputes like Kashmir or N. Ireland where there are no right sides only competing wrongs.
    In the long run integration & expansion must run along side each other, as they have, more or less, up to now.

  • Bernard Salmon 7th Aug '10 - 5:03pm

    If Turkey continues its progress towards greater protection for human rights and democracy and also continues developing economically, there is no reason why it should not become a member of the EU. Much of the opposition to Turkey’s membership is thinly disguised Islamophobia.
    And the point about integration is a bit of a red herring. Many people thought that the addition of the eastern European countries in 2004 would prove to be a brake on integration, which doesn’t seem to have been the case.

  • Why are the UK elite so hot to allow 70 million muslims open access to the EU? Instead of working with the EU in formulating a common approach the Brittania first seek to weaken the EU so they can feel imperial again. If turkey truely westernizes culturely,religiously and makes peace with its various minorities then fine admit them.

  • I assume that the Blue and Orange Tories would be insisting on a UK referendum before Turkey is allowed into the EU? Cameron did promise that there would be no more changes to the EU without one.

  • Paul – your argument sounds rather like those that were used to support apartheid South Africa (and to some extent, the “two state solution” in Palestine – Israel), ie if you keep Muslims separate where possible from other Europeans it will benefit all. From a Liberal perspective surely not an acceptable situation. Tensions have obviously grown between Muslim populations and non-Muslim, largely because of the interaction of “western” wars in perceived “Muslim” countries and violent movements aimed at “defending Muslims”. As we know, over the centuries there have been considerable tensions and outright hostility between the “peoples of the Book” as Muslims call Jews, Christians and Muslims. If you advanced this argument in relation to Jewish populations, you would be accused of anti-semitism. If your argument centred merely around numbers of people who might move from Turkey to other countries, we just might be able to negotiate a gradual process of freedom of movement bearing in mind the large population involved. But don’t rule out cries of Islamophobia if this were to occur!

  • Anthony Binder 8th Aug '10 - 10:38am

    I personally don´t mind what religious belief any citizen in the European Union has, but a member state should of course recognize any other member state in full, and Turkey doesn´t fulfill this criteria, so until they do, they cannot join the European Union.

  • A recent opinion poll showed that 0% of muslims considered homosexuality to be acceptable. While I respect Turkey and its recent efforts to improve human rights etc., as a gay man I have to say I do not want still more people to be allowed to live in the UK who simply do not respect my human rights. One can say “Oh, but these are moderate muslims.” But what if they are then radicalised as many who have been born here have been? We are already stretching the idea of Europe to think that our values and systems of government have anything in common at all with those of even near neighbours (I am writing this from Italy – anyone heard of Berlusconi?) let alone those of a country thousands of miles away that is not even geographically part of Europe.

    I applaud the spirit of internationalism of the contributors here, but letting Turkey into the EU would be an utterly disastrous step.

  • Should Turkey’s membership of the European Union become imminent it is essential that British citizens be asked in a referendum if they wish to remain in a European Union that includes Turkey. If the answer is no we should leave.

  • Rob Sheffield 8th Aug '10 - 12:47pm

    But 15% of the births in England last year were to Muslim families

    Importing illiberalism is not liberal.

    My recently retired mum was a maternity HCA in the hospital covering central Bristol. In that hospital for around a decade or so this proportion has actually been over 75%. There have been many occasions when the patients are popping over from another EU country where health care is not free at the point of delivery- ‘to visit relatives’- but this of course coincides with the end of their pregnancy. There have been hundreds of anecdotes relayed about patients who do not know a single word of English being visited by a stream of aggressive and condescending men (as they were dealing with women workers) who themselves could only speak an extremely modest level of English.

    I’ve seen her turn from a life-long ‘live and let live’ Liberal Party person to a ‘something has got to be done’ person.

    Turkey is not a European country- that is my main reason to say ‘no’ to accession. Along with the fact that we’d just be acceding another nation which immediately needs- and applies for- huge amounts of money CEE state style.

    But another reason is the religion and culture. Multi-culturalism is great; ‘many- culturalism’ is a dangerous farce that breeds illiberal anti-enlightenment attitudes. This ‘many culturalism’ is what we have experienced. The latter of course being where ‘little Karachi’ exists in certain cities within which you would not know you were in the west and where there is almost no interaction with western culture and mores. The sorts of places from where the 4th generation are going to University but their first language is still not English and for whom basic university level composition skills have not been attained.

    Turkey won’t agree to an accession treaty that prevents its citizens from travelling freely (Schengen-style) around the EU or disallows those who enter from accessing benefits housing and health in the countries where these services are of the highest quality and free at the point of delivery (not the majority of countries in Europe). That will be the means by which this is a non-runner.


    Oh and Dave does not believe a word of it, ditto William. This is just another tiresome (but damaging) example of playing to the media.

  • Most of the opponents of Turkish accession put forward the following as arguements; geography, economy, population, immigration, race and religion. As per geography 3% of Turkey is in Europe whereas %0 of Cyprus is in Europe. As per economy and population only 4 countries that were admitted between 2004-2007; Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria combined are more populous than Turkey and besides Poland the other 3 has lower GDP per capita comparing to Turkey whereas Turkish economy grew %11.4 in the 1Q only second to China in the whole world and expected to be 3rd largest economy in Europe in 30 years according to Merrill Lynch. As per race Hungarians are too of central asian origin like Turks. As per Cyprus, EU should not have admitted Greek Cyprus with an ongoing territorial dispute and while Greeks rejected the UN plan and Turkish Cyprus accepted in seperate referanda in 2004, just because Greek blackmailed EU to block Poland’s accession unless Cyprus is admitted alongside, so it is a UN issue not EU and can not be blamed on Turkey only. As per infrastructure nand human rights, a lot of EU members especially the former soviet block and greece, portugal or spain when admitted, were in no better shape.

    So after all, the only argument left for the opponents is that Turkey is a Muslim majority state even though it’s secular for almost the past 90 years. It is perfectly fine if EU rejects Turkey’s bid on this basis but what EU shouldn’t do is putting forward nonsense reasons as mentioned above just to cover up the real reason which will only annoy and alienate the Turkish public towards EU, unless EU wants an angered growing regional power on it’s borders.

  • Turkey is not a European country – that is my main reason to say ‘no’ to accession. Along with the fact that we’d just be acceding another nation which immediately needs- and applies for- huge amounts of money CEE state style.’

    Actually part of Turkey is certainly within Europe and in the 1920’s Attaturk made great efforts to ‘Europeanise’ or ‘westernise’ the country by changing the alphabet, introducing a democratic parliament, instituting rights for women etc etc. It is a Muslim but not an Islamic country (a very important difference). Of course Attaturk could be criticised for a number of reasons (eg attitude to non-turkish ethnic minorities) I wont go into at present but to say that Turkey is not European is misleading and missing the point. The EU needs to be a bit less narrow than restricting itself to purely what are European boundaries (after all is Cyprus technically Europe?). Certain countries are of course anti-Turk such as Greece & France. France of course appears to be generally anti-Muslim and somewhat racist in its attitude to Muslims let alone Muslim countries. But we shouldnt allow their anti Muslim prejudice to influence us.

    Turkey has been reforming a lot recently but even when I was living there in the 1980s the attitudes of many of the people seemed very western and democratic; and even then many spoke of their love of Britain and British values. There is an underlying prejudice to Turkey in some of the comments made – in some cases justified in that the issue of the Kurds is still there, Trade Union reform is still needed and the rise of the religious right is a problem however much is based on simple prejudice and ill informed opinion. Turkey has been reforming and continues so to do (yes) probably with an eye to joining Europe; so although immediate membership is out of the question talks leading to joining in the future with the usual EU demands for assurance of full human rights and genuine democracy (which includes trade union rights, gay rights, full and and unfettered rights for the Kurds etc etc) might of course speed up further democratic change in Turkey all for the good; dismissing Turkey’s wish might lead her to to turn her back on Europe and reform – providing grist for the religious zealots.

    Finally I think Mehmet points the finger in the right direction when he says:

    ‘So after all, the only argument left for the opponents is that Turkey is a Muslim majority state even though it’s secular for almost the past 90 years. It is perfectly fine if EU rejects Turkey’s bid on this basis but what EU shouldn’t do is putting forward nonsense reasons as mentioned above just to cover up the real reason which will only annoy and alienate the Turkish public towards EU, unless EU wants an angered growing regional power on it’s borders.’

  • Let’s not get carried away with Turkey’s secular status. It has only been able to maintain that status by granting its armed forces a powerful constitutional role that would itself be hugely problematic for their admission.

    I guess the fundamental question is whether you think the EU should exist mainly to benefit its own citizenry or whether it is primarily a geopolitical tool for the projection of soft power. While the benefits to Turkey are obvious, I really struggle to see how it would benefit the citizens of the EU. I mean.

  • David Icke is wrong. Let me explain. Icke maintains that the EU is part of an Illuminati plot to bring about world government. Yet it is the Americans, along with the anti-integrationists, who are in favour of Turkey’s accession, and the pro-integrationists who oppose it.

    There are two reasons why Turkey’s accession would be difficult:

    (1) Cyprus. In 1974, at Henry Kissinger’s invitation, Turkey invaded Cyprus and ethnically cleansed a sizable proportion of its inhabitants (numbskulls who maintain that the USA is pursuing a “war against Islam” should remember this). An illegal administration continues to function in North Cyprus, and the ethnic cleansing has never been reversed.

    (2) Turkey has a poor human rights record. Turkey does not have free speech. Try telling the truth about the Armenian genocide, and see how long you stay out of jail. Ethnic and religious minorities have never been treated with respect. Those the state didn’t get round to ethnically cleansing in the 1920s are subject to routine abuse. The culture of Turkey (and I am not referring to the Istanbul middle-class) is quite unlike anywhere in Europe. As for Ataturk, he used to be described as a fascist by those on the left and centre left, but it no longer appears to be fashionable to do that.

    Once (1) and (2) have been sorted out, then by all means admit Turkey to the EU.

    Oh, and what about Russia?

  • Essentially I agree with much of what Sesenco writes above. Off thread, the comment about USA and “war against Islam” – there is a very sharp divide between pre-2001 and post 2001 policy in the US. So not necessarily “numbskulls”. Also, since 1979, much of the US’s policy (along with historic hyper-support of Israel) has been anything which is against Iran after the Shah was overthrown we will support). Although as a liberal, I could not support much of post 1979 Iran’s social policies – isn’t it strange that the west’s attitudes to Saudi Arabia, another country with repressive and often cruel social policies remains largely free of “official” condemnation? Arguably, had the west taken a properly tough line with Saddam in the 80s, when he pursued his war with Iran, that would have been over quickly, and Saddam might have been overthrown in an internal coup, no invasion of Kuwait etc. But….. history is so full of “what ifs”.

  • Tim13, Paul is right to object to your criticism of his contribution to this debate. It is depressing that in this forum, any opponent of the constant appeasement of Muslim demands, be it relating to burqas, polygamy, halal meat or here Turkish accession, will inevitably be accused of racism.

    You accuse Paul of using arguments similar to those used to support apartheid in South Africa and also, somehow, infer that he is guilty of an anti-Muslim version of anti-semitism. Why not go for the whole Godwin’s Law b/s bingo jackpot and accuse him of being a Nazi as well?

    I think Paul understands, as you do not, that true liberalism opposes endless tolerance towards the intolerant.

    If you want to criticise his contribution, do so on the specifics with reasoned arguments and facts. Let’s have no more of these lazy accusations of racism which short circuit proper debate .

  • Fevzi Hussein 9th Aug '10 - 1:15pm

    This site should avoid negative propaganda relating to the Cyprus problem and Turkey’s EU accession. Turkey is by no means perfect but there are many countries in the EU currently that have major issues. Many can’t even host a PRIDE festival without being attacked – no such problem in Istanbul.
    Cyprus was admitted wrongly into the EU. This is double standards and Greek Cypriots who use this as a potential are simply hypocritical obstacle. There have been UN plans to reunify the island and Turkish Cypriots voted to reunify – Greek Cypriots didn’t. Turkey is fully supportive of the current talks. What more can they do?
    That UN referendum would have seen their troops pull out to the degree of only having 650 left on the island today. Let’s face it; it suits certain political agenda’s to have the Turkish army in Cyprus as it gives an excuse to attack Turkey. Had the GC voted yes to the UN Annan plan we would not be having this debate now!
    There was more than one victim in the Cyprus conflict. 371 British servicemen died, many at the hands of EOKA extremists. Let’s get the facts straight.

  • Mr Hussein is spot on, except that not a single British combatant was killed by the Turkish Cypriot minority. Why would they want to, when between 1963 and 1974 they needed our protection from the systematic ethnic cleansing carried out by EOKA terrorists?
    There are obvious economic and logistic arguments for having Turkey in the EU, and it is simply a red herring to say that they are promoted by people who want to wreck the EU. That is on a par with saying that Turkey should not be allowed in until Cyprus is ” solved”; which comes from the came source, I suspect.

    The issues are separate : Turkey’s admission and a solution to the Cyprus problem are two separate problems, because there are other countries and organisations involved besides Turkey who should also be made to join positively in the negotiating process, such as the EU, the UN the US and the UK, not to mention Greece.

    And, if these issues ARE linked, it would be just as logical to say that Greek Cyprus’ membership should be suspended until the Cyprus issue is settled.

    But, overriding all the tangible economic and military arguments, we need Turkey’s entry into the EU as part of our philosphical armoury. Once she is in we will have to negotiate honestly with other Muslim countries, and we have to do this if we want to avoid the Armaggedon terminus that Bible-belt America is rapidly driving the West towards.

  • The pervious interventions by the military were based on protection against far left communism issues not relgious ones. In the past religous issues were actually used to combat communism rather than military working against it.

  • I believe that a positive approach to Turkeys application to the European Union would be beneficial to both Turkey and the EU. Entry into the EU would solidify Turkey’s democracy and sustain improvements in its human rights, this is what happened to Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 80’s and later the East European nations. Would they have been as successful out of the EU, even with its current economic problems, in terms of its democracy, human rights and and over all high per capita income, probably not. It will also entrench and extend the economic reforms which is turning Turkey into an economic powerhouse, this will spur growth in the EU as a wealthy Turkey are then able to buy more European goods and services such as Mercedes Benz and BMW’s and could spend more money as tourists in France, therefore creating jobs in those countries. It will also show once and for all that democracy can succeed in a Muslim majority population.

    As for those who doubt Turkeys Europeanness Turkey has been part of the political structure of Europe for the past 5 centuries and has been accepted as a European nation in all major organisations such as the Council of Europe and Nato. Turks may have become more devout over the past decade but they are hardly followers of a Saudi style fundamentalist style of Islam and Europe should help keep it that way.

    Finally as regards Cyprus, the conflict was initiated by Greek Cypriots destroying the foundations of the partnership which founded the Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and in 1974 tried to annex the Island to Greece. The prime victims of the conflict are those who have been suffering an embargoe since 1963- the Turkish Cypriots. The Greek Cypriots were rewarded with EU membership despite lying to the EU that they were the party that wished to have a settlement and subsequently their political class encouraging to vote NO to the annan plan which would have address a large portion of their complaints about Turkeys presence on the Island such as the vast majority of Turkish Troops leaving the island and large scale return of Greek Cypriots displaced in the fighting in 1974. Turkey application to the EU should not be held hostage to Greek Cypriots whims to completely take over the island rather than share power as partners with Turkish Cypriots.

  • ‘…as regards Cyprus, the conflict was initiated by Greek Cypriots destroying the foundations of the partnership which founded the Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and in 1974 tried to annex the Island to Greece. The prime victims of the conflict are those who have been suffering an embargoe since 1963- the Turkish Cypriots.’

    Supported by the military Junta in Greece at the time – Nikos Samson and his merry band of Fascists attempted a coup which led to PM Bulent Ecevit of Turkey (a Social Democrat) to ask Harold Wilson to intervene under the Treaty of London – failure to do that resulted in Turkish troops being sent to defend a massacre of Turks mainly living in the northern part of the isalnd as had happened in 1963.

    ‘Had Turkey not intervened,’ Sampson told the Greek newspaper, Eleftherotipia, on 26.02.81, ‘I would not only have proclaimed Enosis but I would have annihilated the Turks in Cyprus as well..’ Nice man! I wonder wny Ecevit invaded then??

    However what Turkey did afterwards in removing Greeks from their homes in the North was equally inexcusable – as in the old adage two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Now Greece is no longer a Fascist state under a military junta but then neither is Turkey – neither is exactly a model of liberal democracy but perhaps getting nearer that model – the Greek cypriot view of 1974 – Turkish cypriot view – rather long but interesting

  • ‘Turkey has a poor human rights record. Turkey does not have free speech. Try telling the truth about the Armenian genocide, and see how long you stay out of jail. Ethnic and religious minorities have never been treated with respect.’

    So do other countries including the UK and those of the former eastern bloc – ethnic minorities esp. Groups such as Gypsies are treated applaulingly by some of our eastern european partners.

    Those quesioning or denying the holocaust would get jailed in Germany and Austria (so much for free speech in those two countries). Free speech means the right to say things that others might find distasteful and factually ridiculous or repulsive (such as holocaust denial).

    You are of course right Turkey has a long way to go – it doesn’t recognise or accept the Armenian massacre, Kurds are still treated badly but things are beginning to improve there according to a number of reports on the Kurds in Turkey. There is an Ankara middle class which is quite sophisticated (I lived there for several years) and a Mediterranean & Aegean culture in Turkey. I agree the Anatolian culture especially in the East is more akin to the Central Asian Republics than Europe but the parts of south Eastern Europe are not so disimilar culturally (Albania and Roumania et el) One can certainly have a long debate about Mustapha Kemal Attaturk, Kemalism and the 1920s and 1930 in Turkey – he was a product of the army and placed the army as the defender of the new secular republic – many Islamic fundamentalists certainly hate him for that.

  • The arguments already given would float better if we had an agreed definition of Europe. The EU tried to do this with a Constitution, but this was rejected overtly or tacitly by most of the major EU states. The EU states ( UK in particular but also France and others) do not see themselves as European but as loosely associated economic partners. The newly joining states from the Eastern bloc readily signed up to the Constitution but, being poorer than the EU average, they would have seen an economic advantage to do so. It is unlikely that they have any firmer concept of Europe than we do.
    So we are left to judge the accession of Turkey on economic grounds which dont look too good. With a population of over 70million it would be the second largest state after Germany, but also one of the poorest, on a par with Bulgaria and Roumania. What would that do to the EU aid finances? It would either subtract a lot of aid which currently goes to the poorer regions of the EU (this includes parts of Cornwall, Wales, and the NE in our own country) or would require an increase in the EU budget which, I notice, Mr Cameron thinks is too big as it stands.
    Where there is no definable European ideal to work towards, the economic bargain becomes stark. Turkey would benefit from financial aid and emigration opportunities; Mr Cameron would welcome enhanced trade facilties but would not accept the aid and emigration aspects. It would not be a very good fit.

  • john stevens 22nd Aug '10 - 4:56pm

    I note with great sadness that no one has sought to answer the question about where the LD’s now stand on the spectrum of attitudes towards Europe upon which Stephen Tall says Cameron is at one end. Has the Party’s pro-European commitment, which was widely regarded as its principle distinguishing feature in British politics over the past decade or so now evaporated? Given that the debate which will really shape the future of the EU is that of the economic governance of the eurozone, from which we have chosen to entirely absent ourselves, this would seem to be so. (Turkish EU membership is a complete side-show by comparison). It is a most dangerous omission because the coalition will sink or swim on the economy, and every syllable of George Osborne’s budget depends on whether, and how much, growth there is in the eurozone over the next three/four years. Perhaps Leon Brittan’s welcome appointment is a covert recognition of this fact? But covert pro-Europeanism does nothing to shift and lead public opinion (the pre-requisite of a European policy in the British national interest) and certainly will do nothing to maintain the fast-fading distinction between the LD’s and the Tories in the mind of the electorate. It would be a bizarre irony if the Labour Party under David Milliband, after all the wasted opportunities and weakness on this fundamental issue of the Blair/Brown years, was to emerge as the only advocate of closer European integration for Britain. But no more bizarrely ironical than Danny Alexander cheerfully presiding over closing the euro preparation unit in the Treasury.

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