While the European Commission and the United States are both supportive of Turkey's EU membership aspirations, one important aspect of the accession process, "the demos" has largely been ignored. People in the EU have never been very supportive of enlargement, but regarding Turkey, the opposition is more vocal, controversial, and considerably larger with 55% of the people being against it.
The issue of public opinion in the EU is not only important normatively in that people's opinion "should matter" to address the existing democratic deficit, but also practically, as integrating this controversial candidate without public consent does not seem viable. The whole process of accession, which takes years of negotiations, may be jeopardized if it cannot be ratified at the national level either by parliaments or through referendums, giving citizens a considerable leverage on the issue. In addition, public attitudes towards Turkey's membership are closely connected to attitudes towards the EU integration, the EU constitution as well as domestic elections.
What then explains public opposition to Turkey's membership? Opponent elites mostly voice concerns about Turkish accession in relation to its economic costs. Taking these usual suspects into consideration, I performed a statistical analysis of the Eurobarometer 2000 survey data conducted in 15 member states. In an attempt to explain opposition, I explored the impact of respondents' occupation, employment status, socio-economic status, education as well as more macro economic concerns such as their perception of their region's and country's economy and their perceived benefit from the EU funds. In addition to the economic variables, respondents' ideology, overall support for the EU, and their age were incorporated into the analysis.
The results of this analysis are thought provoking in that none of the utilitarian explanations account for EU citizen's support for Turkey. While ideology seems to have some bite, the real explanation comes from the role of identity. Accordingly, the more one feels threatened by and fears the invasion of Muslims, the more likely one is to oppose Turkey's EU accession. The findings suggest that it is not the economy but the identity or in better words the perceived identity of Turkey and Turks in Europe that predicts higher levels of opposition to the country's membership. Therefore a candidate with a big Muslim population, which is thought to pose a threat to "the European way of life" seems to be the biggest concern in people's minds before anything else.
A 2005 Eurobarometer survey conducted in 25 member states suggests similar results. Accordingly, 54% of the people interviewed think cultural differences between Turkey and the member states are too important to allow its accession. Moreover, more than 60% fear that Turkish membership would encourage immigration into the EU. According to the 2005 Transatlantic Trends Survey 40% of the respondents suggested that Turkey does not belong to the EU because it is a predominantly Muslim country.
Now the question is how this opposition can be mitigated. Given the current low approval rates of Turkey's accession, ways to reverse opposition and persuade people is detrimental if policy makers are committed to the country's membership. As to how to do this, does not seem straightforward. Solely improving Turkey's economic indicators or a decline in unemployment rates in Europe would not ensure this as people's opposition lays somewhere else. Current public opinion data is consistent with this point in that, when the 2008 Eurobarometer asked if the respondents would support the country's membership if it met all the accession criteria, opposition is only reduced from 55% to 45%.
That is not to say that persuading people is impossible especially given the large number of people who cannot make up their mind. Several studies illustrate that the horror scenarios predicting an invasion of Europe by the Turks are largely unfounded. Quite the contrary, based on surveys conducted with residents of EU member states which are of Turkish descent, a reverse migration to Turkey is expected. The public should be made aware of these implications of Turkey's membership.
Furthermore, current public opinion can be seen as an opportunity for the EU to reconstruct what is understood by being "European". Instead of emphasizing the differences and building "a self" as opposed to "a Muslim other", a more Kantian and cosmopolitan understanding of a European identity with an emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism could be endorsed by the media and political elites. This requires a long term commitment, yet failure to attain this would leave no room for Turkey's membership and would also mean failure to integrate millions of Muslims currently living within EU's borders.
Finally, given its "image" problem and possible continuance of these dynamics, it might also be wise for Turkey to challenge this misperception and promote a different image as well as to relieve people's fears of Muslim immigration by adopting voluntary transition periods on immigration.
Basak Ural is a PhD Candidate at University of Pittsburgh, Department of Political Science and a Visiting Researcher at New York University, Department of Politics.
Related Material From the Atlantic Community:
- Ghassan Dahhan: Europe: Prevent Turkey Turning East
- Gamze Avci: Ankara: Looking West, Moving East?
- Brian Katulis: The US Needs Turkey for its Middle East Agenda