Religion as a frontier of the European Union? A case-study on Turkish accession

17 October 2016 /


The refugee crisis emphasised the importance of the EU-Turkish relationship, culminating with a controversial agreement last March and the EU commitment to accelerate the opening of new chapters of the Turkish adhesion. But is this opening a mere smokescreen and Turkey doomed to await indefinitely EU membership due to its cultural and religious differences with the rest of EU members? In short, is religion an underlying criterion for the EU membership?

An Union straddling the fence about Turkey’s accession

The EU-Turkish relationship reaches back to the dawn of the Communities project, with an association agreement in 1963 and Turkey’s official application in 1987. But Turkey seems to undergo a closer scrutiny of the accession’s criteria than any other applicant so far (Taspinar, 2008). After several postponements, negotiations only ultimately began in 2005, and ever since, talks have been freezing and thawing. Even very recently, the president of the European Commission opined that Turkey was currently not ready for EU membership and that it won’t be the case in 10 years either, implicitly acknowledging that Turkey might actually never accede to membership.

Article 49 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) governs the EU enlargement policy. It provides that any European State respecting and promoting the European values as set forth in article 2 (such as democracy, rule of law and human rights) may apply to become an EU member. The undefined notion of European State seems to offer some leeway as to the applicable yardsticks, ranging potentially from geography and history to religion and culture. Could Turkey be regarded as a European State?

Turkey: a European State?

The shape of the old continent, although mostly an intellectual conceit and thus open to construction,hasn’t changed for the last centuries. However a geographical criterion seems dubious if not irrelevant in such borderline cases, especially as Cyprus, located southern of Turkey, is now an EU member.

Turkey’s distinctive culture has also often been put forward by its accession’s opponents. But it doesn’t withstand the analysis long. It stands to reason that we currently live in multicultural Union of 28 nations, including several strikingly different lifestyles. It would even contravene the whole notion of a Union in diversity and the legal provisions governing the latter. Additionally, Turks and Europeans are not alien to each other as approximately 40% of Turkey’s population is of European roots and millions of people of Turkish origins have acquired the EU citizenship (T. Ramadan, 2011).

Justifiably one might then highlight a European common history and a Judeo-Christian past. However from a mere historical perspective, for centuries the Ottoman Empire shaped the continent alongside the European Powers. Already in the late 19th and all the more with the arrival of Atatürk in the 1920s, Europeans fully accepted Turkey’s European orientation, thus discarding the theory of a disjointed history.

Lastly, the EU could be a “Christian club”, as many of its architects construed it. This question seems rather pertinent as, so far, no applicant State with a strong Muslim community has ever been accepted within the Union. But when looking at Europe as it is today, this potential criterion calls for some qualification. The religious landscape has diversified, and the trend is to the decline of Christianity and the increase of Non-Believers – nearly 20%-  and Muslims, who will represent for instance 8,6% of the population in Western Europe – including France, Germany and the Netherlands-  by 2030 (Pew Research Center study, 2011). Those figures are admittedly far from the 99% of Muslims in Turkey.  Moreover, the State, also member of the Islamic Organisation, keeps strong ties with Islam, by appointing Imams or running religious schools for instance. Curiously however, as secular State, Turkish political leaders sometimes adopted a strong stance towards the practice of Islam, for example by banning headscarves in universities and governmental premises.

Within the EU though, Member States enjoy freedom in defining the relationship between State and Religion, and similar unusual arrangements can be found throughout Europe. Some Members, like France, are historically lay State, others have an established religion, such as Malta, Greece and Bulgaria, or grant them constitutional privileges, like Spain or Poland. In practice, the British Prime Minister still chooses bishops and archbishops of the Anglican Church and in one part of Greece, Muslim muftis exercise powers akin to judicial ones, while in Athens, they struggle for the recognition of official Mosques.

The existence of a purely religious yardstick contradicts the very idea of the EU, and its values of pluralism and tolerance, as enshrined in article 2 of the TEU

But some would argue that it is more the Turkish religious landscape itself that threatens the very idea of Europe as a Christian civilization. However the existence of a purely religious yardstick contradicts the very idea of the EU, and its values of pluralism and tolerance, as enshrined in article 2 of the TEU. The EU by itself shall endorse no religious status, whether officially or implicitly, all the more for the sake of its own social peace.

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“Values not borders” (Commissioner Rehn, 2005)

In the end, the sole decisive benchmark that could legitimately apply should be the respect for EU own values. From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, the country has been devoted to the establishment democracy, the rule of law and the embracement of human rights. Nonetheless over the last decade, Turkey regressed on most of those values. In addition to striking infringement upon freedom of expression, cases of torture, corruption and discrimination against religious and ethnic groups still occur, with some recent blatant examples of repression of the Kurdish minority. In addition gender inequality and violence against women remain important social concerns.

Nevertheless, such deviation shouldn’t be in principle regarded as an ad infinitum hindrance to accession. Moreover, in the midst of several crises, some EU Members themselves could be blamed for similar retrogression, such as the Republics of Hungary and Poland (Human Rights Watch, 2016).

Apart from the controversial European characterisation of Turkey, the political, economic and administrative Copenhagen criteria remain, it is true, to be fulfilled. Already in 2004, a European Commission report mentioned that Turkey was very close to satisfying them. But 12 years later the situation hasn’t much changed. In the end, is the accelerated opening of new chapters a mere smokescreen?

Turkey-EU negotiations: a never-ending story?

As alleged by the French President N. Sarkozy in 2009, “Turkey may enjoy a privileged relationship with the EU, but full membership is excluded. Turkey is not European”.

Although Turkey’s accession would demonstrate that the EU has no insuperable prejudice against Islam, it is still uncertain, if not unlikely, to occur one day  

Such statement, in line with the majority views in most of the EU members as shown by recent polls (Eurobarometer, 2010; Forsa, 2014), reflects the tenacity of a European religious and cultural ghost and reveals Europe’s continuing contortions over its identity. Although Turkey’s accession would demonstrate that the EU has no insuperable prejudice against Islam, it is still uncertain, if not unlikely, to occur one day.

Admittedly, pursuant to the treaties the final decision remains at the Members States’ discretion, taking notably in consideration the EU’s capacity to integrate new members (European Council Conclusions, 16/12/2004). Indeed, the Turkish accession is unique in terms of degree and would bring about both institutional and substantive challenges. Moreover the historical tensions with Cyprus remain an important hindrance to the Turkish accession.

In the end, a clearer definition of the EU capacity of absorption could, in the future, prevent uncertainty around the concept of “European State” and ultimately the frontiers of the European Union. Nonetheless, if the fate of Turkey has already been decided upon, we should maybe stop paying lip service and behave with some sincerity, in line with the aforementioned European Council Conclusions which called for “credible accession negotiations” with Turkey.

Hélène Decottigny, Erasmus Student in a Master of Law at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

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