Foreign Policy Blogs

Iceland edges toward EU membership. Why not Turkey?

As a consequence of a court decision last year – concluding that German constitutional law required more parliamentary oversight over EU decisions – the German Bundestag and Bundesrat are required to vote on the Icelandic bid for EU membership. The German parliament’s say on these matters make it unique among the parliaments of member states. The Icelandic bid is, however, uncontroversial in Germany and is expected to pass without problems.

Considering the financial situation the north Atlantic island finds itself in, the apparent ease with which the Icelandic bid moves forward can seem somewhat surprising. Of course, Iceland’s economic meltdown has been the cause of contention between the governments of Iceland, Britain and the Netherlands. The latter have been attempting to secure compensation for money invested by the British and Dutch in the now defunct Icesave Bank. An Icelandic referendum has recently turned down a payback plan and Icelandic politicians are now attempting to obtain an agreement on more favorable terms. Nevertheless, these issues do not seem to be a serious stumbling block for Icelandic bid. Instead the main bone of contention is not Iceland’s economy but rather the country’s whaling practice, which is a big no-no in other EU-countries.

The acceptance of Turkish EU membership has on the other hand proven more difficult. Turkey signed an association agreement with the EEC in 1963 and entered into a customs union with the EU in 1996. It was however not until 2004 that the admission process officially was initiated. Yet Iceland, who officially applied in 2009, is closer to membership of the club than the Turks. And why then, is this the case?

Iceland has already obtained a considerable degree of integration into the framework of the EU. The country has been a member of EFTA (since 1970), has had a free trade agreement with the EEC (since 1972), membership of the European Economic Area (since 1994) and participates in the Schengen area (since 2000). Iceland is already taking part in the EU Single Market with its four fundamental freedoms via the European Economic Area (EEA). In addition, Iceland is home to one of the oldest democracies in Europe.

Let us compare this list to the EU’s membership requirements, the so-called Copenhagen criteria. In bullet points these criteria consist of:

  • stable institutions to guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities
  • a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU’s internal market
  • the ability to take on all the obligations of membership, i.e. the entire body of EU law and policy known as the “acquis communautaire,” and adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union

Taking into consideration that the EU has decided to interpret the economic requirements in a “forward looking dynamic way”, it makes sense that Iceland is on the fast track to EU membership while Turkey must wait. The Turkish rule of law and human rights record is far from ideal. The Turkish military is a political player which continues to make its preferences felt, and the country’s record in dealing with the Kurdish minority is not pristine. Of course, Turkey’s relationship to Greece and Cyprus has also been a serious problem. These issues have caused the Turkish road to membership to be very bumpy indeed.

The accession negotiations have centered around Turkish adherence to the acquis communautaire which has been broken down into 35 negotiation areas – so-called “chapters.” Each chapter needs to be unanimously opened and closed by the Council. So far, only the chapter on science and research has been closed provisionally. Eleven more have been opened, while fourteen remain blocked. The arguments surrounding Turkish accession are not related to one issue, but range from demographic through geographic to the political, economic and cultural. In particular the skepticism of key players such as Germany, France (and Cyprus) has blocked the opening of new chapters.

Although there are many areas of contention, the idea that core values of the EU are related to a common Christian faith seem to be at the center of much of the European skepticism. Turkish membership would from one day to the next increase the EU’s Muslim population from say 5 % (numbers on this point vary greatly) to 20 %. Turkey would replace Germany as the most populous EU country, with predictions showing that the German population will shrink while Turkey’s will grow. In a continent that has found it difficult to adapt nation-state style democracies to the challenges of immigration, this is not taken lightly.

Considering that most European democracies have developed within borders defined by cultural and linguistic commonalities (a fancy term for country), it is hardly surprising that Europeans associate democratic norms with their own ethnicity. The association of democracy with ideas related to ethnicity has proven a powerful cocktail in European politics. Whereas anti-immigration parties in the 1990’s could be dismissed as radical fringe groups, these parties have in the 2000’s successfully wooed the mainstream electorate, portraying themselves as the protectors of secular democratic society. These Europeans view the religiously inspired governing AK party in Turkey with suspicion.

The crux of the matter seems to be; would the EU change Turkey or would Turkey change the EU? President of the European Council, Belgian Van Rompuy, stated in speech in the Belgian parliament in 2004:

“An expansion of the EU to include Turkey cannot be considered as just another expansion as in the past. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey.”

Van Rompuy’s sentiments – although not articulated in this fashion – have apparently reverberated in Berlin and Paris. During the 2009 EU election campaign Merkel stated she would prefer Turkey to receive a privileged partnership from the EU, rather than full membership, echoing recent comments made by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Turks declared the suggestion “insulting.”

It is not hard to find people of prominence who disagree with Van Rompuy, Sarkozy and Merkel. British foreign minister David Miliband called the turning away of Turkey from the EU “unconscionable.” Miliband argued that being European is about values, not race or religion, and that including a secular Muslim country would strengthen the Union. Obama certainly sides with Miliband, saying that “Turkish membership would broaden and strengthen Europe’s foundation once more.” Nobel Peace laureate Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president and head of the Commission on Turkey, stated that backtracking on Turkey’s membership caused Europe to lose its credibility as a global partner.

This blogger agrees with the likes of Miliband, Obama and Ahtisaari. If the EU wishes to nudge Turkey in a secular direction, the most effective way to do so is through integration. Turkish polls, showing that Turkish attitudes towards the EU are impacted negatively by the drawn out accession process, indicate that snubs from critical EU members antagonize Turks and slow down the reform process. Furthermore principles are at stake. If the EU wishes to measure itself against values that are truly universal, it must make the effort to integrate and engage Muslim Turkey. This is not to be understood as an uncritical acceptance Turkish political practices, it is simply stating that the admission criteria for Iceland and Turkey should be precisely the same.



Finn Maigaard

Finn Maigaard holds an MA in history from the University of Copenhagen. As an MA student Finn focused on diplomatic history culminating in a thesis on US-Danish security cooperation in the Cold War. Finn also interned at the Hudson Institute's Political-Military Center, where he concentrated on the EU's role as a security institution, and at the World Affairs Institute as a Communications/Editorial Research Assistant. Finn currently resides in Washington, DC and works as a freelance writer, and as Program Coordinator at the University of Maryland's National Foreign Language Center.

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