Celebrating 20 years: Challenges and milestones in EU enlargement and the Kurdish issue in Turkey

The European Union’s (EU) approach to expansion is akin to a strategic game of chess, deeply influencing its political dynamics and relationships with neighbors. Two decades past, the EU celebrated a landmark expansion in 2004—a moment that redefined the bloc's trajectory. However, the complexities of EU enlargement involve much more than simply welcoming new members; it entails a rigorous vetting against well-established benchmarks. This week, as we mark the 20th anniversary of that pivotal expansion, a reflective examination of the intricate criteria and hurdles faced during the enlargement process is essential. Of particular note is the "political criterion," especially regarding Turkey’s candidature at the time.
Liñas de investigación International Relations European Union
Apartados xeográficos Europe

Turkey has been angling for EU membership since as far back as 1963, but it was the Copenhagen criteria established in 1999 that structured the accession pathway. These criteria span political, economic, and legislative realms, forming the cornerstone for determining a candidate country’s eligibility.

Central to this narrative is the Kurdish minority in Turkey—a significant touchstone in assessing Turkey’s adherence to the political criterion. As of 2003, and continuing today, it’s critical to explore whether Turkey meets the political benchmarks concerning its treatment of Kurds. This inquiry is complex, involving legal precedents, assessments by various stakeholders, and a deep dive into historical contexts.

The “political criterion” at the heart of this assessment is inherently layered and open to interpretation. Its application depends not just on objective measures but also on the European Council’s disposition towards the aspirant nation. Hence, specific instances like the treatment of Kurds become crucial.

Tracking Turkey’s journey from the 1963 Association Agreement to the decisive 2002 Copenhagen summit sheds light on progress—or the lack thereof—through European Court of Human Rights case law, stakeholder evaluations, and a historical overview beginning with the Treaty of Sèvres.

A comprehensive examination of the Kurdish issue also requires a multilevel analysis, exploring the historical, linguistic, and socio-political dimensions of Kurdish identity, guided by UN conventions and Council of Europe standards. Various perspectives on the Kurdish question should be considered, including constitutional complexities, underdevelopment in South-East Anatolia, and challenges posed by groups like the PKK.

In conclusion, despite Turkey’s considerable efforts twenty years ago, the political criterion related to the Kurdish minority was not met at the time. Cultural reforms fell short, and human rights violations continued, highlighting the intricate challenges of EU enlargement and the need to bridge diverse political landscapes. These reflections illuminate the complex interplay of factors that shape EU-Turkey relations and underscore the nuanced challenges of EU expansion.

This analysis draws from insights of my master thesis: “La Turquie et le critère politique: la question kurde,” written in French for the Research Master at the Institut for European Studies (ULB) in 2003, supported by a scholarship from the Fundacion Galicia Europa.