Examining and Addressing the Root Causes of the Problems in EU-Türkiye Relations

Ahmet Çağrı Soylu
European Studies Internship Program
Editör: Ayşenur Alişiroğlu


Türkiye’s relations with the European Union (EU) have a deep-rooted history. However, at this point, while many countries that started their relations with the EU much later than Türkiye are EU members and have good relations with EU countries, Türkiye has remained weak in this respect. So much so that when bilateral relations began in the 1950s, the European Economic Community consisted of only six Member States; while today, although the EU consists of 27 Member States, Türkiye is still not one of these members. This paper focuses on the underlying reasons behind Türkiye still not having achieved EU membership and strives to address them. While this study examines the history of Türkiye-EU relations, it tries to identify certain problems within the framework of these reasons by considering why bilateral relations have not progressed and to address the identified problems by formulating potential remedies.

Keywords: EU-Türkiye Relations, Presidential System, Democracy Index, Rule of Law, Balance of Power


Türkiye’nin Avrupa Birliği (AB) ile ilişkileri köklü bir geçmişe sahiptir. Fakat bugün gelinen noktada Türkiye’den çok daha sonra AB ile ilişkilerini başlatan birçok ülke bugün AB üyesiyken ve AB ülkeleriyle iyi ilişkiler yürütmekteyken Türkiye bu açıdan zayıf kalmıştır. Öyle ki ikili ilişkilerin başladığı 1950’li yıllarda Avrupa Ekonomik Topluluğu sadece altı üyeden oluşurken bugün AB 27 üye devletten oluşmasına rağmen Türkiye hala bu üyelerden biri değildir. Bu araştırmada Türkiye’nin henüz AB üyeliği sürecini tamamlamamış olmasının altında yatan sebeplerin belirlenmesi ve ele alınması amaçlanmaktadır. Bu çalışma Türkiye-AB ilişkilerinin tarihçesini incelerken, ikili ilişkilerin neden ilerlemediğini bu çerçeve içerisinde ele alarak tespit edilen sorunlara olası çözümler sunmaktadır.

Anahtar Kelimeler: AB-Türkiye İlişkileri, Başkanlık sistemi, Demokrasi endeksi, Hukukun üstünlüğü, Güçler dengesi

1. Introduction

The European Economic Community (EEC) was established in 1957 by six founding member countries, becoming one of the most important steps for the establishment of the EU. These countries are Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands (EU Commission, 2019). After the establishment of this Community, various relations were developed between the Community and various other countries. Türkiye was also among the states that established close relations with the EEC (Saatçioğlu, 2012, pp. 1-4). With the Ankara Agreement signed on 12 September 1963, Türkiye accepted the Association Agreement based on the Customs Union with the EEC, envisaging full membership of the Community in the future (Siyad, 2013). While the bilateral relations between the parties continued, the EU was established formally in 1993 and the Helsinki European Council approved Türkiye’s candidate status to the EU in 1999 (Republic of Türkiye State Planning Organization, 2014). But later, the process did not progress as Türkiye wanted. So why did the relations between the EU and Türkiye deteriorate and the accession process come to a standstill? Also, is it possible to alter this situation in the future? In this study, reports published by the EU and the Turkish Government as well as various articles were examined and answers to these questions were sought.

2. Reasons behind the deterioration in Türkiye-EU relations

According to the 2022 Report on Türkiye presented to the Commission of the European Union, Türkiye is lagging behind the EU standards in many aspects. Those aspects are namely the weakened democratic institutions, lack of judicial independence, serious regression in civil society issues, failure to strengthen civilian oversight of security forces, decisions not taken in line with the EU in matters of foreign policy, and deterioration in human rights and fundamental rights.

2.1. Weakened democratic institutions

According to Yeşilada, when the Justice and Development Party [JDP, (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi-AKP)] first came to power, it was in a structure consisting of Islamists and liberal democrats. However, a one-man regime was introduced in Türkiye later (Yeşilada, 2023). With the intervention of this regime, the existence and purpose of many democratic institutions fell into doubt. For this reason, the EU, who attaches great importance to the Copenhagen Criteria and therefore great importance to democratization, was concerned by Türkiye’s declining democracy. In addition to that, Türkiye’s great decline in the democracy index between 2012 and 2016 is yet another sign that Türkiye has been going backwards in terms of democracy (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017).

2.2. Lack of judicial independence

According to the EU’s 2022 Report on Türkiye, illegitimate oppression for judges and prosecutors harms judicial independence in Türkiye. In addition to that, refusing to comply with the decisions made by European Court of Human Right (ECtHR) led the Commission of the European Union to be skeptical of the Turkish judicial system. In addition, the restrictions on the fundamental freedoms of journalists, academics and artists are proof that the judicial independence has not yet been realized.

2.3. Serious regression in civil society dialogue

EU’s 2022 Report on Türkiye states that the regression in the civil society environment continued, and it was emphasized that the imprisonment of Osman Kavala in particular was an anti-ECtHR act. It was also highlighted that there is pressure on civil society that restricts freedom of expression (p.15).

2.4. Failure to strengthen civilian oversight of security forces

Accountability of the military, police and intelligence units is limited in Türkiye, according to the EU’s 2022 Report on Türkiye. In addition, any crime committed by the security forces may go unpunished because in order to investigate crimes committed by soldiers, it requires prior permission from military or civilian superiors (p.17).

2.5. Decisions not taken in line with the EU in foreign policy

According to the EU’s 2022 Report on Türkiye, Türkiye’s unilateral approach, especially towards relations with Iraq and Syria, harms relations with the EU. In addition, Türkiye’s level of harmonization with the EU remained at 7%, which is very low (p.7).

2.6. Deterioration in human rights and fundamental rights

The EU stated that Türkiye did not comply with the decisions of the ECtHR in Demirtaş and Kavala cases and was concerned that this situation would become permanent. In addition, since the decisions restricting freedom of expression are implemented by various state institutions, the Committee that prepared the EU’s 2022 Report on Türkiye stated that Türkiye has serious differences with the EU regarding human rights and it is concerned about these differences (p.30).

3. What can be done to improve Türkiye-EU relations?

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index (2017), Türkiye’s score in democracy has been decreasing continuously since 2012. Especially after constitution amendments were ratified and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became President, the authoritarian elements in the Turkish government gradually got strengthened (Gunter, 2016). In addition, with the change of system in 2018, Türkiye became even more authoritarian and the power of the ruling party was increased and as a natural result of authoritarianism, democratic institutions gradually got weaker (Çalışkan, 2018). One of the most important reasons behind Türkiye facing these difficulties is that the structure of the Turkish presidential system model is not suitable for a democratic administration. Because normally, presidential systems are systems where the separation of powers is strictly enforced. However, according to Gözler (2016), the Turkish presidential system model is one that tries to bring the legislative and executive together. This, in turn, weakened the principle of separation of powers and had a direct impact on the weakening of democratic structures. In other words, this system, which is one of the biggest obstacles to Türkiye’s democratization, should be abolished as many political leaders have already proposed. Thus, there are important steps to be taken towards the re-democratization of Türkiye.

Another issue that adversely affects Türkiye-EU relations is Türkiye’s lack of certain developments in the field of law. According to Metin (2016), there are many problems in Türkiye that harms the independence of the judiciary. One of them is that the decisions of the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors [SCJP, (Hakimler ve Savcılar Yüksek Kurulu-HSYK)] cannot be prosecuted. In addition, the presence of a minister and undersecretary in the SCJP harms the independence of the judiciary. Another issue is that all the members of the board are from the high courts, and the board has a say over all the judges and prosecutors. To prevent this, the SCJP should consist only of judges and prosecutors. But these judges and prosecutors should be chosen homogeneously, not just from the high courts. This way, the separation of powers can be consolidated, and the judiciary can become more independent.

Türkiye is also rather weak in terms of the rule of law. In a country where the judges feel comfortable in the decision-making process and the independence of the judiciary prevails; the rule of law will automatically be established. The full realization of Türkiye’s judicial independence will significantly improve relations with the EU. For this, in addition to strengthening the rule of law, the appointment process of judges and prosecutors should be made transparent and the judiciary should comply with international standards as much as possible.

Another reason that contributed to the deterioration of Türkiye-EU relations is the sentiment that Turkish security forces are not well-inspected. The notion of police violence, generally claimed to be applied especially to LGBTIQA+ individuals and ethnic minorities, is strongly rejected by the Turkish government. This is a situation that can only be addressed through negotiation. Türkiye is in a struggle with the PKK terrorist organization, which has serious power, especially in the eastern and southeastern parts of the country. Therefore, it follows policies aimed at gathering people who are members of the organization or aiding and abetting terrorism. In this case, the EU must respect the measures it has taken against threats to Türkiye’s territorial integrity. However, Türkiye’s pressure on certain minority groups, such as LGBTIQA+ individuals, must also come to an end. To sum it up, if the parties negotiate and understand each other’s concerns and take steps towards it, there should still be hope for positive developments.

The final issue that plays a key role in Türkiye’s relations with the EU is conflicts in foreign policy. Supporting different parties in the Middle East issues, especially in Syria, Iraq and Libya, adversely affected Türkiye-EU relations. In addition, the fact that Türkiye does not suspend its relations with Russia and follows a balance policy in this regard is among the disagreements with the EU (Köstem, 2021). In addition to all these, there are conflicts of interest between Türkiye and the EU in the Eastern Mediterranean region (Toygür et al., 2022). The reasons for all these disagreements are multi-layered and not easy to resolve. In all these regions, there are actions that Türkiye has to take for its own security and interests, as well as actions taken by the EU in line with its own interests. Progress in this subject can only be achieved through negotiation. If the parties understand each other’s situation well and approach each other in a constructive way, progress can be made. For example, progress can be made towards helping Syria recover through an EU-Türkiye partnership and Assad on the Syrian conflict. In response to its exclusion in the Eastern Mediterranean, Türkiye can potentially use its trump card of letting refugees cross into Europe, or it can convince them that common foreign policy moves with Türkiye should be made after gaining the trust of the EU by fulfilling other conditions within its European integration policies.

4. Conclusion

In summary, Türkiye’s democratic decline, the rule of law losing efficiency day by day, the deficiencies in the supervision of law enforcement, the increase in various human rights violations in recent years and the fact that Türkiye did not act in line with the EU’s interests in terms of foreign policy all played a role in the relations between the EU and Türkiye having come to a standstill despite having a deep-rooted history. These problems may be resolved over time as Türkiye changes its presidential system and makes changes to the SCJP, reforms the judiciary, and makes changes to ensure the rule of law and negotiate foreign policy with the EU for further alignment.


Çalışkan, K. (2018). Toward a new political regime in Türkiye: From competitive toward full authoritarianism. New Perspectives on Türkiye, 58, 5-33. 

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European Commission. (2022). 2022 Report on Türkiye.

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Saatçioğlu, B. (2011). The Paradoxes of Türkiye’s EU Accession Process. In K. Kirişçi (Ed.), Türkiye’s Accession to the EU: The Politics of Exclusion? (pp. 1-25). Routledge. https://sbb.gov.tr/wpcontent/uploads/2018/11/The_Likely_Effects_of_Türkiyes_Membership_Upon-the_EU.pdf

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