It's obvious that Turkey’s bid for European Union membership has been off the public agenda for some time. Several opinion polls have demonstrated that Turks have lost their initial enthusiasm and excitement about joining the EU and they do not believe it will be achieved anytime soon. It's not difficult to understand this trend. As a matter of fact, major actors within the EU, like Germany and France, do not want to accept Turkey as a full member of the EU. The obstacles created during years of negotiations not only alienate the ordinary people but also alienate diplomats from the process. Meanwhile, the Turkish economy is booming and Turkey is emerging as a key actor in the region, while European economies are struggling with serious economic and social crises. The structure of the EU is on the verge of coming apart. All these factors led many Turks to say: “Under these circumstances, we don't need to join the EU.”
The government more or less follows the same pattern. Actually Turkey's official line on this issue hasn't changed. The government did not give up on the EU process, nor did they end the negotiations. In fact, Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bagis pursues this process full time. However, many members of the government, including the prime minister, are reluctant [to pursue the EU membership bid], as we noted during the recent Justice and Development Party (AKP) Congress. During his 2½-hour speech, Erdogan did not once refer to the EU. The AKP put emphasis on the Near East and the Arab and Islamic worlds, thus [showing that] the EU is of secondary importance.
In such an environment, [Turkish] President Abdullah Gul — in his speech during the opening session of parliament — reserved considerable space for the EU. This is noteworthy. With his speech the president brought up the EU issue, which was almost forgotten. Gul's call for the MP's to prioritize EU reforms is significant. The Turkish Assembly had worked hard on these reforms and amendments in the recent past.
Now, Gul is urging a return to this spirit and the acceleration of the EU process. He said: “Though the EU process is hindered by external factors, we should take the necessary steps and keep on fulfilling the requirements with full determination.”
Gul further elaborates on why we should keep the EU aspirations and spirit alive: “It is a fact that these EU aspirations accelerated and initiated many reforms that strengthened Turkey's economy and democracy, as well as improved the quality of life for Turkish citizens.”
Yes, the goal of joining the EU had been a motivation and driving factor for Turkey. Many social, economic and political reforms were realized thanks to this process. Though sometimes it's said that “Ankara Criteria” might overrule “Copenhagen criteria,” it's obvious that the standards of the former are not as valuable as those of the latter. Let me add one more thing regarding the president's advocacy of the EU bid: Turkey has to follow a multidimensional foreign policy if it wants to be a regional and global actor. Its standing in the region will be reinforced by EU membership. Leaders of nearby countries emphasize that they would benefit from Turkey more if Turkey were to become a member of the EU. The disappointment and concerns of ordinary citizens regarding the EU process is understandable. Yet political leaders should guide public opinion properly, instead of succumbing to populism. In this regard, Gul did the right thing by putting the EU back on the agenda.