Analyzing Turkey’s EU Membership Status

For over six decades, Turkey and the European Union (EU) have navigated a complex relationship marked by both progress and setbacks.

For over six decades, Turkey and the European Union (EU) have navigated a complex relationship marked by both progress and setbacks. Despite Turkey’s significant reforms to align with EU standards, full membership remains elusive. This article delves into the primary obstacles hindering Turkey’s EU accession and explores potential solutions and future prospects for this intricate relationship.

History of Turkey-EU Relations

Turkey’s relationship with the EU began in 1959 when it first engaged with the European Economic Community (EEC). The official framework was established with the Ankara Agreement in 1963, marking the start of economic cooperation between the two parties. Turkey’s commitment to strengthening these ties peaked in 1987 with its formal application for full EEC membership, later transitioning to the EU.

However, Turkey’s journey toward full membership has been fraught with challenges. In 1989, the European Commission acknowledged Turkey’s potential for membership but expressed concerns about its economic and political performance, as well as its problematic relations with Greece and the Cyprus conflict. Despite these issues, Turkey continued to adapt to European standards, joining the European Union Customs Union in 1996, thereby enhancing its economic integration.

Political and Diplomatic Obstacles

A significant barrier to Turkey’s membership is the opposition from key EU member states such as France, Germany, and Austria. These countries harbor political and cultural reservations about Turkey’s accession. Their concerns often stem from perceived differences in political and social values between Turkey and the EU.

For instance, France’s objections frequently cite human rights and press freedom issues in Turkey, which are seen as falling short of EU standards. Germany also expresses apprehensions about internal political influences and bilateral relations with Turkey. The debate over Turkey’s membership often becomes a contentious issue within the internal politics of European countries, further complicating negotiations.

Conflict with Greece and Cyprus

Ongoing disputes with Greece and Cyprus pose significant hurdles. The Cyprus conflict, involving the division between the Turkish-controlled north and the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, remains a sensitive and unresolved issue. The EU expects a resolution to this conflict as a prerequisite for Turkey’s full membership. Additionally, territorial disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea add another layer of complexity.

This issue is particularly critical given that the Republic of Cyprus has been an EU member since 2004. Turkey’s military presence in northern Cyprus and territorial claims create diplomatic tensions that impact the accession process. The EU views a peaceful resolution of the Cyprus issue as crucial to ensuring all member states share common values and maintain harmonious relations.

Copenhagen Criteria

Turkey must meet the Copenhagen Criteria, established by the European Council in 1993, to attain full EU membership. These criteria include institutional stability, democracy, human rights, and a functioning market economy. Despite numerous reforms, the EU continues to question Turkey’s adherence to these standards, particularly in human rights, democracy, and judicial independence.

Since 2002, Turkey has implemented Turkish Harmonization Packages to align domestic laws with European standards. While significant progress has been made, fundamental issues persist. For example, despite abolishing the death penalty, concerns about gender equality and press freedom remain prominent.

Legal and Constitutional Issues

Legal and constitutional changes in Turkey are often complex and prolonged. Certain laws, such as those regarding gender equality and capital punishment, still fall short of EU standards. Constitutional amendments require referendums and approval from the Grand National Assembly and the President, adding another layer of difficulty.

Efforts to secularize state institutions, education, and legal systems to meet EU standards often face resistance from conservative groups within Turkey. These changes require broad support from the public and political institutions, a challenging feat given the country’s political polarization. The referendum process further complicates achieving consensus that aligns with European standards.

Cultural and Identity Differences

Cultural and identity differences between Turkey and EU countries are frequently debated. With a significant Muslim population and Islamic heritage, Turkey is perceived as distinct from the secular and liberal cultural identity of Europe. This perception fuels debates about the cultural compatibility of Turkey with the EU.

Many Europeans view Turkey as part of the Islamic world, different from the secular and liberal values upheld by the EU. Fears of “Islamization” of Europe if Turkey joins are often used as arguments against its accession. Despite Turkey’s secular and modern stance, skeptical public perceptions in Europe remain a barrier.

Economic Issues

Despite economic integration with the EU through the Customs Union, differing legal standards and regulations pose challenges. Deeper economic involvement necessitates further adjustments from Turkey. Discrepancies in regulations and legal standards between Turkey and the EU create significant hurdles for closer economic integration.

Moreover, while Turkey receives financial aid from the EU budget as pre-accession support, not all EU members support this assistance. Some member states believe that providing substantial financial aid to Turkey is unjustified, especially considering ongoing issues with human rights and legal standards in Turkey.

Refugee Crisis

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, with approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The EU seeks close cooperation with Turkey to manage the refugee crisis, but fair burden-sharing remains unresolved. The 2016 EU-Turkey agreement aimed at reducing refugee flows to Europe highlights Turkey’s crucial role in addressing this issue.

However, this agreement has sparked controversy, with some criticizing the EU for relying too heavily on Turkey to manage the refugee crisis. Additionally, political situations in Turkey and the treatment of refugees there raise concerns about human rights violations.

Solutions and Future Prospects

The future of Turkey-EU relations is predicted to remain complex and challenging. Despite mutual interests in strengthening ties, sensitive issues like human rights and legal standards in Turkey persist as major obstacles. The EU needs to consider new approaches to engage Turkey within a regional framework while acknowledging its membership aspirations.

A potential solution is to enhance economic relations and cooperation on global issues such as the refugee crisis and terrorism while continuously encouraging reforms in human rights and legal sectors in Turkey. With a more inclusive approach and mutual compromises, the relationship between Turkey and the EU can improve.

Deepening economic ties through comprehensive trade agreements could be a starting point. Additionally, cooperation in education and cultural fields may help bridge perceptual gaps between the two parties. Exchange programs for students and professionals, as well as joint projects in research and technology, can strengthen bonds and foster mutual understanding.


Turkey’s EU membership remains a distant reality despite significant efforts to meet the established criteria. Political, diplomatic, regional conflicts, and cultural differences are major hurdles to overcome. Constructive dialogue and ongoing reforms are essential for advancing Turkey-EU relations.

Both sides must remain committed to dialogue and cooperation despite the challenges. Turkey should continue making progress in legal and human rights reforms, while the EU must maintain open and transparent negotiations. By doing so, the future relationship between Turkey and the EU can become brighter, offering significant benefits for both parties.

Firdiansyah Akhfaitar
Firdiansyah Akhfaitar
I'm a sixth-semester student majoring in International Relations at Andalas University. I'm now resides in Padang.