By Ronnan Rodas*

The relationship between the European Union and Turkey remains one of the more contentious among the candidates for accession to the EU. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has begun accelerating the visa liberalization process for Turkish citizens in the EU, as part of a broader effort to force accession dialogue after a controversial decision by the EU to suspend talks in early 2019. [1] However, proceedings such as visa liberalization tend to occur at the inception of a country’s full membership process, which is clearly not the case for Turkey. [2] In February 2019, the EU  suspended all accession talks with Turkey, citing a disregard for human rights and civil liberties. [3]

There are a multitude of factors impeding Turkey’s accession; particularly the tensions between its identity and the EU’s supranational identity. Turkey’s historical baggage combines centuries of highly resonant identity crises, stretching far back towards the fall of the Ottoman Empire and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s subsequent modernization of Turkey to conform to the Western European model. Nonetheless, EU-Turkey relations have remained fraught with frustrations high across the board. The EU, justifiably, is skeptical of the autocratic style of government that has been increasingly embraced by Recep Erdoğan this decade, as demonstrated in his response to the attempted 2016 coup. Recently, there has been a clear cultural revival of their Ottoman Empire legacy, dubbed “Neo-Ottomanism”. With Erdoğan at the helm this decade, Ottoman-era styles of traditional Islamic policies have seen a sharp rejuvenation. 

 EU membership will require considerable heavy lifting on Turkey’s part. The EU’s continuing skepticism of Turkey reflects a deeper frustration between the two entities. In order for accession to finally transpire, Erdoğan’s unmitigated Neo-Ottomanism must be discarded. 

Kemalism and Ataturk’s Reforms

From what was once the great Ottoman Empire, Turkey has a deeply embedded relationship with nationalism, Islam, and secularism. They are one of the few European countries with a majority Islamic population. Also, their history as the seat of the Ottoman Empire illustrates the considerable importance of Islam in Turkey. In the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamist state rule by a Caliph, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known as the Father of the modern Turkey, began to implement a series of legal, religious, and economic reforms in an attempt to modernize the newly proclaimed Republic. [3] Uniting the country in the victorious Turkish War of Independence in the early 1920s, Ataturk aimed to establish a renewed national identity for the Republic as a fully autonomous country independent from any Western intrusion. [4] The Treaty of Lausanne was signed after the war, and the stipulations of this treaty proved to be much more favorable towards Turkish sovereignty than the preceding Treaty of Sevres, which had authorized the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire and initiated its eventual collapse. [5] Although there remained a great deal of resentment for the signatories of the Treaty of Sevres, Ottoman scholars were faced with “the Eastern question”: how to move forward as a disassembled empire while Christian Europe was prevailing on all fronts, scientifically and culturally. It was decided that Westernization would be ideal, as Western European countries provided a model for success. [6] Ataturk then ushered in waves of reforms in his tenure as the first President of the new Republic of Turkey, in a process appropriately known as Kemalism. 

The overall goal of the reforms was to sever any ties to the fallen Ottoman Empire and establish a new, national, and secular Turkish identity. Offices of President and Prime Minister replaced the Sultanate and Caliph, and the government in Ankara granted legislative power to a unicameral Grand National Assembly made up of elected representatives. [7] Adherence to the strict legal code enforced by the Caliphate was also abandoned, and in 1926, Turkey adopted the Swiss Civil Code, the legal doctrine governing Switzerland. [8] Furthermore, in another effort to undo the highly traditional Islamic policies of the Ottoman Empire, women were now permitted and even encouraged to seek professional degrees and enter the workforce. [9] Also, it should be said that these examples are just a few of many– dozens upon dozens– reforms enacted in Ataturk’s term. Collectively, they illustrate a pattern of mending Turkey to mirror its Western, secular counterparts.

 The Kemalist era laid the foundation for Turkey’s decision to eventually file an official application for an associate membership with the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1959. [10] However, the latter half of the century would see a series of deferments in the process. Nearly 30 years after its initial application, Turkey, still an associate member, applied again for formal membership into the EEC in 1989. Although there was an understanding by both parties, per the Ankara Agreement signed 30 years prior, that Turkey would eventually become a formal member of the EEC, their accession again was deferred, as the European Commission cited the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus in 1974 as reason for Turkey’s denial. [11] In spite of this, Turkey clung to varying degrees of secularism through the turn of the millennium. Attempts to adhere to Ataturk’s staunch vision for a secular Turkey has since been met with bitter resentment from the more conservative and religious Turks, and in the early 2000s, contributed to Recep Erdoğan’s rather swift and decisive rise to power. 

Post-Cold War Tensions

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the European Union was faced with a major dilemma regarding the former Soviet states. Decided at the Luxembourg Summit in 1995 to Turkish disappointment, five former communist states culminated their membership process relatively swiftly, as opposed to Turkey: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, and Cyprus. [12] Turkey was excluded from this wave of accession, to their chagrin. Not until the Helsinki summit two years later would Turkey see another opening of EU membership talks, when in December 1999, the EU would proclaim to regard Turkey on “equal footing” in terms of accession. [13] Regardless, the EU continued to hinder Turkey’s membership process. Citing the ongoing discrimination against the Kurds by the Turkish government, the EU made their discontent with the progress, or lack thereof, of human rights in Turkey known. Bülent Ecevit, Prime Minister at the time, was consistently chastised by the EU for his mishandling of the “Kurdish problem”. Despite the economic reforms Ecevit had implemented to stabilize their economy and manage their inflation, the EU maintained that Turkey at its then-current state did not satisfy the non-discrimination principle they required. [14] With stagflation at the horizon, Turkey in 1999 was in the midst of a deepening social and economic crisis, and the EU used the burdening crisis as further evidence of their incompatibility. Istanbul recognized this, but their attempts at stability under Ecevit were ultimately futile. Common attitudes in Istanbul at the time were generally suspicious that the EU would move forward with accession with former communist states before them. Ultimately, the EU maintained their position that Turkey simply has an unclear commitment to liberalism and democracy. 

 An identity crisis ensued. Nationalists began to wonder outwardly, why all the beckoning for EU membership when there has been no mutual respect or cooperation? These sentiments would later be seized upon by Recep Erdoğan after the turn of the millenium.  

The 21st Century and the Erdoğan Problem

Mayor at the time, Erdoğan was arrested and later jailed for inciting hateful and religious-based rhetoric in 1997. [15] He had given a speech where he cited a known nationalist that seemed to harken back to the glory days of the Caliphate. Likening mosques to barracks, the speech captures the resentment and surging resistance to what some Turks would see as a betrayal of their Ottoman predecessors; a sentiment Erdoğan would channel and evoke as part of his image as he ascended the ranks of Turkey’s political sphere. [16] Erdoğan was able to capitalize on the contempt many Turks had for the pro-Western and secular policies championed by their government. Some had feared their country was turning its back on the very foundations of Islam in an effort to appease Western, EU bureaucrats for admission in to their “special club”. Thus, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was founded on principles to renew traditional Islamic policies. Moreover, the AKP vowed to maintain a pro-Western and secular platform; they simply wished to revitalize Islamic culture in Turkish society. [17] However, ever since its founding, Turkish and foreign media have accused the AKP of being deliberately pro-Islamist and actually anti-secular. There is considerable support for these suspicions. Firstly, the founding party officials founded the AKP after the dissolution of the explicitly Islamist Virtue Party. [18] Additionally, Erdoğan and the AKP have operated under the guise of “conservative democratization”, but may perhaps be advancing a hidden agenda to revitalize traditional Islamic legal doctrine. As Turkey tightens regulations on abortions and cesarean section operations, and imposes stricter dress codes for women, the EU is justifiably skeptical of the authoritarianism the country has no problem eliciting. [19] Most worrisome, religious authoritarianism reached new heights after the failed 2016 coup.

This event resulted in the death of 250 people. The incident quickly became a national trauma that Turks are likely to endure for a long time. Holding the opposition party responsible, the Gülenists, responsible, Erdoğan hailed the coup attempt as a “gift from God” and used it to justify an indefinite state of emergency. [20] Currently, about 50,000 people affiliated with the Gülenist movement, including military personnel, police officers, business people, journalists, teachers, academics, and housewives, are imprisoned. [18] Furthermore, more than 600 children under the age of 6 are in prison with their mothers. An estimated 150,000 public employees were dismissed for ideological reasons, primarily accused of being Gülenists and by virtue enemies of the state, losing their pensions and social security benefits, and are blacklisted through their social security numbers. [22] In fear of being labeled as the opposition, private employers hesitate to offer jobs to the victims of the purge. Travel bans were also imposed on the suspected mutineers, thereby trapping them in a country hostile to their beliefs. [23]

The fallout of the coup succinctly captures the incompatibility of an AKP-ruled Turkey with the EU and heightens the EU’s suspicions. It provided the EU even more validity in their skepticism of Turkey as being a legitimate European country. Whereas the Kemalist-era featured a national rejection of the Ottoman days, Erdoğan today has been glorifying their Ottoman heritage. From promoting state-sponsored religious schools, to mandating an Islamic dress code for government employees, and requiring that military personnel don Ottoman-era dress uniforms, there is no denying agenda to rid the country of the secular Kemalism Turkey once embodied. [24] Critics rightfully cite his crackdown on his opponents since the failed coup as evidence of Turkey approaching blatant authoritarianism. Although Erdoğan likely will not proclaim himself as a 21st century Sultan, the trajectory he has set Turkey on will remind the world of the Ottoman’s hay day.


Turkey remains an anomaly. The Turkish government’s recent penchant for Neo-Ottomanism and hostility towards civil liberties, coupled with the trend of desecularization, justify the European Union’s hesitation for pursuing the accession process for Turkey. It is the EU’s right to promote and necessitate an adherence to Western values. Until Turkey can satisfy the conditions set by the EU, accession is justifiably unlikely. As Ataturk once said, “He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap.” 

[1] “Turkey to speed up efforts for EU visa liberalization”, Hurriyet Daily News, last modified 18 September 2019,

[2] Seyma Nazli Gurbuz, “Turkey to increase momentum in EU visa liberalization process”, Daily Sabah, 

[3] Sarah Dadouch, “Turkey condemns European parliament committee call to suspend accession”. Reuters. February 21, 2019. 

[4] Jacob M. Landau, “Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey”, BRILL, 1984.

[5] ibid

[6] Tsitselikis, K. (2010). “The minority protection system in Greece and Turkey based on the Treaty of Lausanne”

[7] Ibid

[8] Özsu, U. (2010). ‘Receiving’ the Swiss Civil Code: translating authority in early republican Turkey. International Journal of Law in Context, 6(1), 63-89

[9] Ibid

[10] White, J. (2003). State Feminism, Modernization, and the Turkish Republican Woman. NWSA Journal, 15(3), 145-159. Retrieved from

[11] Meltem Muftuler-Bac,Divergent Pathways: Turkey and the European Union : Re-Thinking the Dynamics of Turkish-European Union Relations”, Barbara Budrich, March 23, 2016. 

[12] Ibid

[13] Berdal Aral. “Making Sense of the Anomalies in Turkish-European Union Relations”. Journal of Economic and Social Research 7(1), 99-120. 2005. 

[14] Ibid

[15] ibid

[16] Elliot Ackerman, “Atatürk Versus Erdoğan: Turkey’s Long Struggle”, The New Yorker, July 16, 2016

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Tekkas Kerman, K., & Betrus, P. (2018). Violence Against Women in Turkey: A Social Ecological Framework of Determinants and Prevention Strategies. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse. 

[21] Ahmet Kuru. “Islam and Democracy in Turkey: Analyzing the Failure”. The Montreal Review. December 2017.

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Joseph V. Micalleff, “Erdoğan the Magnificent, Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Revival”. March 12, 2018.

*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.