UK-Turkey relations and Turkey's regional role - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


6 Membership goal

UK support for Turkey's EU membership

166.  Turkey is distinguished from the other emerging powers with which the Government wishes to strengthen the UK's relations by being a candidate for EU membership. Turkey has had an Association Agreement with the EU since 1963, which already referred to the possibility of the country's accession. Turkey applied for membership in 1987, was granted candidate state status in 1999, and opened accession negotiations at the same time as Croatia in 2005.

167.  The FCO described Turkey's EU accession as a "key goal" for the Government.[386] In his speech in Ankara in July 2010, the Prime Minister described himself as the "strongest possible advocate" for Turkey's accession and said that he would "fight" for Turkey to secure the place "at the top table of European politics" which he said was its due.[387] The Government's support for Turkey's EU membership sustains the position taken by its predecessor. It also keeps the UK in the 'pro-Turkey' camp within the EU, which is split on Turkey's membership. Following his election in 2007, French President Sarkozy made clear that he did not regard Turkey as a European country and that in his view it therefore had no place in the EU. Austria is also opposed to Turkey's accession, while German Chancellor Merkel has stated her personal preference for a relationship between the EU and Turkey which is short of membership. David Lidington reminded us that the UK is not alone in backing Turkey's accession, however: UK allies in this respect include Italy, Spain and Sweden.[388] In December 2011, the Foreign Secretary co-authored an article declaring Turkey's accession process to be of "vital strategic and economic importance" with his counterparts from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Sweden.[389]

168.  The FCO said that having Turkey as a Member State would:

  • boost the EU economy, by bringing in a large market and working-age population (see paragraphs 144-149);
  • enhance the EU's international influence, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (see Chapter 4);
  • help to secure improved energy supply routes for the EU (see paragraphs 135-143), and
  • "reinforce the EU's shared values".[390]

169.  The FCO's list of the benefits of Turkey's EU membership overlapped significantly with that offered by the Turkish Embassy. The Embassy said:

Turkey's membership [in] the EU will first and foremost enhance [the] EU's ability to play a more effective role in our wider region. Turkey is a strong regional power sharing the same goals and principles with the EU and as such will be an asset for [the] EU's external policies. Likewise as a strong emerging economy with the highest growth rate in Europe, Turkey will also strengthen the EU in the face of important global economic challenges. Finally with its predominantly Muslim population Turkey's membership [in] the EU will confirm that democracy and its values are indeed universal and EU is a true community of values with a global impact.[391]

170.  Some witnesses referred to some of the difficulties involved in, and sources of opposition to, Turkey's EU accession. Katinka Barysch referred to Turkey being "big, Muslim and slightly more complicated to integrate into the EU" than other candidate states.[392] For example:

  • Chart 1 shows that Turkey is expected to have overtaken Germany and thus to be the largest EU Member State in terms of population by the time that it would be likely to join the EU. This would have profound implications for the EU's institutions and policies.

  • Ms Barysch suggested that Turkey had relatively traditional attitudes towards national sovereignty and was "quite nationalist", with "its own ideas about how the world works". She suggested that this might make it difficult to integrate Turkey into the EU, and, in particular, that its accession might make it harder to forge a common EU foreign and security policy.[393]
  • Ms Barysch said that it was widely assumed that Turkey's predominantly Muslim nature was one of the reasons for popular opposition to Turkey's EU membership, in Western Europe in particular. However, she said that there was a lack of clear survey evidence on this point. Some survey respondents in the EU seemed more concerned about vaguer "cultural differences" than Islam as such. Others appeared to equate Muslims and Arabs.[394] Sir David Logan felt that popular opposition in the EU to Turkey's EU membership was probably "soft" and capable of being turned around.[395]

171.  Despite these potential difficulties, almost all our witnesses agreed that the benefits identified by the FCO would accrue to the EU from Turkey's accession. They therefore endorsed the Government's support for the policy. This applied especially with respect to the impact of Turkey's economic dynamism and international weight.[396] On Turkey's Muslim identity, Dr Cengiz and Dr Hoffman argued that:

The European Union was not created as a Judeo-Christian institution but rather a union of like-minded countries that seek common economic (and political goals). There is thus no reason why Turkey should not join its neighbouring union for cultural reasons. Turkey's Muslim population will clearly be [an] enrichment to the Union that reflects the political reality of today's world. A reinvigoration of the accession process and building of closer ties with the Turkish people would also help the EU countries in the fight against Islamophobia.[397]

172.  David Lidington told us that the UK's support for Turkish accession had given it some "bruises" inside the EU but had not damaged the UK's broader European interests.[398] The FCO also said that the strength of the UK's commitment to Turkey's EU accession "underpinned" the UK-Turkey relationship across the bilateral agenda. Our impression is, indeed, that the UK's consistent support for Turkey's EU membership is appreciated in Turkey and constitutes a firm platform for good UK-Turkey relations. We heard anecdotal evidence that France's opposition to Turkish accession, and its poor political relations with Turkey overall, were counting against French interests in the commercial sphere.[399]

173.  We conclude that the Government is correct to continue to support Turkey's accession to the EU, subject to Turkey meeting the accession criteria. Turkish accession would be likely to boost the EU's economic growth and international weight. We further conclude that the Government's continuing support for Turkey's EU membership provides a strong basis on which to develop enhanced UK-Turkey bilateral relations.

174.  Successive UK governments' support for Turkey's EU membership is not mirrored by public opinion. In opinion surveys, the share of UK respondents supporting Turkish accession is consistently low, although not lower than the EU average:

Under the UK's European Union Act 2011, accession treaties do not trigger a referendum in the UK and are ratified only through Parliament. Among the EU Member States, in early 2012 only France and Austria planned referendums on any Turkish Accession Treaty—and endorsement of Turkish membership appeared unlikely in these two states without a major shift in public attitudes. Referendums remained possible in a number of other Member States, while the holding of neither the French nor Austrian poll was certain. Turkey has also raised the prospect of holding a referendum on its EU accession.

175.  Although the UK would not be expected to hold a referendum on any EU Accession Treaty with Turkey, we recommend that the Government should seek to foster popular support for Turkish accession as part of its broader efforts to enhance Turkey's standing with the British people.


176.  Among our witnesses, only MigrationWatch UK raised concerns for the UK about the prospect of Turkish EU membership. MigrationWatch UK was concerned about Turkish nationals' right to free movement elsewhere in the EU following Turkey's accession. MigrationWatch UK argued that the conditions were in place for a surge in immigration to the UK from Turkey following the latter's EU accession, similar to that which took place following the accession of eight former communist states in Central and Eastern Europe in 2004. It recommended that, in contrast to the then Government's decision not to apply temporary restrictions after 2004 to the right to free movement from these eight states, the Government should block free movement from Turkey to the UK after Turkey's accession until emigration patterns from Turkey became clearer.[400] In recent accession negotiations, the EU has negotiated with the candidate country a maximum post-accession period of time for which existing Member States may limit free movement from the new Member State, leaving it to individual Member States to decide whether and for how long to apply restrictions up to the agreed maximum period.

177.  The Government has already committed itself in general terms to the imposition of restrictions on the right to free movement from Turkey to the UK following Turkish accession.[401] In its 2011 Report on the justice and home affairs aspects of Turkey's EU accession, in which it considered possible post-accession emigration from Turkey, the Home Affairs Committee welcomed the Government's policy in this respect.[402] We did not encounter any hostility to the UK in Turkey as a result of the Government's stance, although it may be that accession is too remote for the UK position to be widely known. At elite level, it has been well signalled that at least some Member States are likely to impose post-accession restrictions on free movement from Turkey.[403]

178.  With respect to free movement (among other policy areas), the EU's Negotiating Framework for its accession negotiations with Turkey states that "Long transitional periods, derogations, specific arrangements or permanent safeguard clauses, i.e. clauses which are permanently available as a basis for safeguard measures, may be considered".[404] The FCO told us that it considered that this wording could be interpreted both to mean that post-accession restrictions on free movement must be temporary and that they could be permanent—although it noted that the right to free movement was a fundamental principle of EU membership.[405] Ms Barysch described the prospect of long restrictions on free movement as a "touchy subject" for Turkey,[406] but Mr Peet thought that Turkey might accept quite lengthy post-accession restrictions.[407] More generally, we were told that Turkey was reluctant to start to discuss possible post-accession deviations from the EU acquis while uncertainty remained over whether it would join the EU at all.

179.  We conclude that the Government is correct to be planning to impose restrictions on the right to free movement from Turkey to the UK following any accession to the EU by Turkey (although it is by no means certain that Turkey's accession negotiations will reach this stage before the next UK General Election). We recommend that the FCO should if necessary take steps to mitigate the risk that the Government's stance on this issue might damage the UK's standing among Turkey's population.

What kind of EU?

180.  Our impression is that the debate about the costs and benefits of Turkey's EU membership and possible accession terms has something of an air of unreality, partly because of uncertainty over whether Turkey will join the EU at all, and partly because of the likely timescale if it does accede. The European Commission's proposals for the EU's next multiannual budget, to run from 2014 to 2020, contain no provision for Turkey's accession during that period, and David Lidington told us that Turkish accession before 2020 was "unlikely".[408] Turkish government figures have spoken in terms of Turkey being an EU Member by the centenary of the Republic in 2023. The Home Office declined to carry out the assessment of likely post-accession migration from Turkey which the Home Affairs Committee urged in its 2011 Report on the grounds that too much uncertainty attached to the economic and social conditions that might prevail by the time that Turkey joined.[409]

181.  A number of our witnesses argued that the EU might look very different to the way it does today by the time that accession negotiations with Turkey might be in a final phase. In particular, several witnesses suggested that, following the December 2011 European Council, a two (or more)-tier EU appeared to be in prospect.[410] As a result of the December European Council, 25 of the 27 Member States have signed an intergovernmental 'fiscal compact' treaty outside the EU which provides for much closer fiscal integration, with the UK and the Czech Republic standing aside. The Foreign Secretary told us in February 2012 that there was "no question" of obliging states newly acceding to the EU to sign up to the treaty, as—not being an EU treaty—it did not constitute part of the body of EU law, case law and practice (the EU acquis) which new Member States must take on.[411] However, the intergovernmental treaty asserts its signatories' intention to integrate its provisions into the EU Treaties, as soon as possible and within five years at most of it coming into force (which is envisaged for 1 January 2013 at the latest).[412] If the 'fiscal compact' treaty were to be incorporated into the EU Treaties, under the EU's current enlargement practices any newly acceding state would be obliged to take on the relevant provisions, unless it could negotiate a post-accession derogation or transition period.

182.  Several of our witnesses suggested that Turkey would be more comfortable in the outer tier of a two-tier EU than in the current model.[413] For example, Katinka Barysch said that "fiscal integration, a common currency and more common decision-making [were] not things with which a pretty traditional power such as Turkey would feel comfortable".[414]

183.  We recommend that, if and when it is required again to consider the possible incorporation of the new intergovernmental 'fiscal compact' into the EU Treaties, the Government should bear in mind the implications of EU Treaty change of this sort for possible future accession countries such as Turkey.

Will Turkey still want to join?

184.  Officially, Turkey remains committed to EU membership as a strategic objective.[415] Given the likely timescale involved, the question is whether trends in the EU, Turkey and the wider region will keep Ankara pursuing membership for perhaps up to a decade after publication of this Report—and perhaps over 30 years after Turkey applied for membership and over 50 after the goal of its possible accession was first formulated.

185.  Ms Barysch said that, notwithstanding rhetoric in Turkey about the country no longer needing the EU, it had "not quite woken up to the implications" of abandoning an objective which it had entertained for half a century.[416] Some witnesses stressed the extent to which Turkey's regional weight and attractiveness partly rested on its uniquely close relationship with the EU, while others highlighted the economic benefits of full access to the single market.[417] It is also only through membership that Turkey will gain EU decision-making rights and full access to the EU institutions, with the international status that comes with them.

186.  Other witnesses suggested factors that might incline Turkey eventually to abandon its accession goal. For example, according to opinion polls, only a relatively small share of Turkish respondents expect the EU to admit Turkey (see Chart 3). Such people may presumably decline to base career or personal plans on the expectation of membership—a phenomenon which may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The British Council highlighted a survey which it had commissioned among university students in Turkey which showed that only 35% believed that Turkey would become an EU member.[418] During our visit to Turkey, it was put to us that political parties' failure to instrumentalise EU membership during the 2011 election campaign demonstrated a continuing cross-party commitment to the goal. However, some of our witnesses and interlocutors interpreted the lack of discussion, at both elite and mass level, as evidence simply of a growing lack of interest in the EU.[419]

187.  Some witnesses and interlocutors cast doubt on the scale of the economic gains that might accrue to Turkey from accession in several years' time. Under the terms of the EU-Turkey Customs Union, Turkey already has free trade in goods with the EU, while not being obliged to apply all of the single market acquis (see paragraph 162). Meanwhile, if Turkey's economic growth continues, the value to it of prospective EU financial transfers may fall.

188.  For the EU, the passage of time may paradoxically make Turkey easier to absorb in some respects, owing to the higher level of economic development which it would be likely to have achieved. Higher incomes in Turkey might reduce the likelihood of emigration to wealthier parts of the EU, thus reducing concerns about the right to free movement. John Peet told us that Turkey was now a country of net immigration, including as a result of Turks returning there from the EU.[420] Compared to the EU average (100), Turkey's GDP per capita in 2010 was already higher (49) than that of Bulgaria (44) or Romania (46).[421]

386   Ev 55 Back

387   David Cameron, speech in Ankara, 27 July 2010, via Number 10 website ( Back

388   Q 219 Back

389   "The EU and Turkey: steering a safer path through the storms",, 1 December 2011 Back

390   Ev 55 Back

391   Ev 96 Back

392   Q 89 Back

393   Q 88 Back

394   Qq 91, 94 Back

395   Q 68 Back

396   Q 88 [Ms Barysch], Ev 59 [Sir David Logan], 91 [European Azerbaijan Society], 101 [Dr Cengiz and Dr Hoffman], 131 [Economic Development Foundation] Back

397   Ev 101 Back

398   Q 219 Back

399   Qq 92 [Ms Barysch], 172 [Dr Toksoz] Back

400   Ev 80-81 Back

401   Home Affairs Committee, Tenth Report of Session 2010-12, Implications for the Justice and Home Affairs area of the accession of Turkey to the European Union, HC 789, paras 98-99 Back

402   Ibid., para 107 Back

403   EU Negotiating Framework for Turkey, October 2005, via the European Commission Enlargement website, at Back

404   IbidBack

405   Ev 72 Back

406   Q 95 Back

407   Q 49; see also Dr Toksoz, at Q 174. Back

408   Q 229 Back

409   Government Response to the Tenth Report from the Home Affairs Committee Session 2010-12, Implications for the Justice and Home Affairs area of the accession of Turkey to the European Union, Cm 8187, October 2011, p 15 Back

410   Qq 82 [Sir David Logan] Back

411   Letter to Chair on the December 2011 European Council, February 2012, published on the Committee's website ( Back

412   Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, Preamble and Article 16 Back

413   Qq 82 [Sir David Logan], 87 [Ms Barysch] Back

414   Q 87 Back

415   Ev 97 [Turkish Embassy] Back

416   Q 85 Back

417   Ev 86 [Dr Bechev] Back

418   Ev 134; see also the survey cited by the Economic Development Foundation at Ev 130. Back

419   For example, Dr Bechev at Ev 86 Back

420   Q 49 [Mr Peet] Back

421   Eurostat, GDP per capita in PPS Back

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Prepared 4 April 2012