The question of European Union (EU) membership is certainly a top priority for the Turkish foreign minister but it also proves to be a highly controversial domestic problem. The country has been making steps toward closing the gap with the EU since 1963 when it became an associate member.
In 1999, Turkey applied for a full EU membership. The first actions to change Turkish laws in accordance to EU laws were taken in 2003. Official accession talks started on October 3, 2005. Despite the evident progress, Turkey has still a long way to go. Historically, geographically and culturally, Turkey has always belonged simultaneously to Europe and the Middle East. Its location on the Euro-Asian border and questions about its questionable human rights record, along with its rapid overpopulation, are some of the factors that have been seen as obstacles for the advancement of talks.
Research shows that the vast majority of EU citizens oppose Turkey's inclusion in the EU. Austria is the only EU country to officially object to Turkey's full membership, offering a "privileged partnership" instead, although there are other critical voices. French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed his doubts in 2007. He declared: "I want to say that Europe must give itself borders, that not all countries have a vocation to become members of Europe, beginning with Turkey which has no place inside the European Union." German Chancellor Angela Merkel also believes that: "Turkey does not fit into the EU because it is culturally different."
There has been tension about the subject in Turkey itself. Prime Minister's Recep Erdogan's efforts to convince Europe that Turkey is worthy of their trust has caused dissatisfaction and rage amongst some Turkish nationalists. Their primary concern is that the country might lose its sovereignty and in terms of identity will be completely westernized. Nevertheless, a survey carried out in 2003 shows that the majority of Turks support the bid for EU membership, whereas 30 percent are opposed to it. An interesting fact is that only half of the people who define themselves as "very religious" are in favor of Turkey's membership.
Another interior debate that hinders negotiations is the country's refusal to officially recognize the Republic of Cyprus, a EU member state since 2004. As a candidate state, Turkey has to grant access to its ports to Cypriot planes and vessels but Turkey firmly refuses to do so due to a dispute over the political and economical embargo on the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). In 2009, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek claimed that if Turkey has to choose between EU membership and supporting the TRNC, they will "forever stand next to the Turkish Cypriots."
In order to be granted full membership, Turkey needs to successfully negotiate and close 35 "chapters" of EU law. After that all member states must unanimously agree to grant Turkey full membership. Since the beginning of accession talks in 2005, the EU has closed one chapter, Science and Research (June 2006) and opened negotiations on 13 other chapters. These include: Enterprise and Industry (March 2007); Financial Control and Statistics (June 2007); Trans-European Networks and Consumer and Health Protection (December 2007); Intellectual Property and Company Law (June 2008); Free Movement of Capital and Information Society and Media (December 2008); Environment (December 2009); and Food Safety, Veterinary and Phytosanitary Policy and Taxation (June 2010). Negotiations over 17 chapters have been frozen by the EU, some at the request of France.
Despite slow progress, the Turkish economy has long been closely connected to the EU. The Turkish economy is the fastest growing in Europe and the second in the Group of 20 Nations (G20) after China. More than 50 percent of Turkey's trade is with the Union. The share of exports to the EU marks a slight growth from 56 percent in 2006 to 56.4 percent in 2007. Imports from the EU as a share of total imports decreased from 42.6 percent to 40.4 percent, mainly because the import bill for energy has increased and Turkey imports energy mostly from countries outside the EU. In 2007, EU foreign direct investments (FDI) in Turkey had reached nearly EUR 9 billion, which is almost two-thirds of the total FDI in the country.
The EU Progress Report from November 2010 marks a positive development in many areas. These include political criteria, judiciary and anti-corruption strategy. However, the report clearly states that no breakthrough is possible until a solution to the Cyprus problem is found.