Failure of EU conditionality in Turkey: positive conditionality, negative result

Publication type Article
Status Published
Occupation: Post-graduate student, National Research University Higher School of Economics
Affiliation: Post-graduate student, National Research University Higher School of Economics
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameAsia and Africa Today
EditionIssue 6

In order to join the European Union, candidate countries have to meet a specific set of conditions (the Copenhagen criteria), which include maintaining stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities. Incentivising the countries wanting to join the EU to strengthen democratic institutions, EU membership conditionality - tying the possibility of membership to compliance with membership conditions - is considered to be an effective tool for  promoting  democracy  and  the  rule  of  law.  However,  the  effectiveness  of  conditionality  was  recently  questioned  by  an authoritarian turn in Turkey and democratic backsliding in other candidate countries.

The  question  that  arises  from  recent  developments  is  whether  EU  membership  conditionality,  based  on  rewards  rather  than sanctions (“positive” conditionality), is equipped to deal with democratic backsliding in candidate countries. This article closely examines the EU’s choice of responses addressing the problem of democratic deterioration in Turkey, the country with the most drastic dismantling of democratic institutions amongst the candidate countries, and assesses the scope and limits of the tools the EU employed to redress severe democratic backsliding.

The article concludes that positive conditionality by itself is limitedly equipped to effectively counteract the consolidation of authoritarianism. For Turkey, the situation was also aggravated by the lack of expertise on the part of the EU, which previously had no experience in dealing with democratic backsliding in candidate countries. Additionally, there were instances of conditionality being applied inconsistently, compromising its credibility. What also affected the application of conditionality is the leverage Turkey gained in EU-Turkey relations due to the EU’s need to enlist the country’s support in curbing the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe. Combined, the problems resulted in the ineffectiveness of measures taken to counteract democratic deterioration in Turkey.

KeywordsEU conditionality, EU enlargement, democratic backsliding, Turkey
Publication date27.06.2020
Number of characters24415
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1 EU membership conditionality is considered to be one of the most effective tools at the EU’s disposal for promoting democracy, stability and rule of law in its neighborhood.
2 The success of conditionality was exemplified by the 2004 enlargement round, when 10 Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) successfully joined the EU. The EU further enlarged in 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the Union, and in 2013, when the EU welcomed Croatia. After that, the EU was planning to expand even further, to include Turkey and the whole of the Western Balkans. However, what once seemed to be a promising enterprise given the successful track record of EU conditionality is now marred by troubling developments.
3 The most drastic case of backsliding in the immediate European periphery is Turkey, which moved in the Freedom House rating from a stable partly free (3.0) in 2012 to an alarming not free (5.5) in 20181. A similar trend, though not (yet) of the same proportion, is evident across the Western Balkans [1; 2]. 1. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World is a democracy index that on a yearly basis assesses the level of democratic freedoms around the world. The values range from 1 (greatest degree of freedom; most democratic) to 7 (smallest degree of freedom; least democratic) (author’s note).
4 Now that the authoritarian trend in EU candidates is manifest to the extent that it can no longer be ignored, a number of questions arise. What can the EU do to counteract backsliding? What has it been doing? Has it been enough?
5 The question that the EU is not likely to escape is whether the Union had not been too lenient on smaller, but already noticeable instances of disrespect towards democracy and human rights for too long [3]. Another question, and perhaps an even deeper one, is whether the EU could do any differently, with the tools available.
6 EU accession conditionality heavily relies upon the idea of positive incentives in the form of prospective membership. The prospect of membership provided enough incentives for the CEECs, with carrots (rewards) rather than sticks (punishments) proving to be sufficient to incentivize pro-democratic change. However, one cannot expect carrots to always be juicy enough [4]. With no sticks at hand and the 2004 enlargement round being largely successful, the EU had little experience and practical tools to deal with severe breaches against the European principles when it took upon itself much trickier candidates.
7 Looking closely at Turkey – the “trickiest’ candidate with the longest history of the accession process and the most dramatic backsliding, this article analyses what the EU has been doing to counteract democratic backsliding and deterioration in human rights.
8 The analysis concludes that the failure of the EU to counteract the worrying trends may be linked to the general lack of instruments against backsliding within the type of conditionality employed by the EU for the accession process (positive conditionality), inconsistent application of conditionality, and mismatched reactions.


10 EU membership conditionality is a vibrant example of positive conditionality. Countries are offered benefits in exchange for their compliance with accession conditions. Target countries decide by themselves whether the benefits outweigh the costs of compliance and face no additional sanctions if they are not interested in EU accession as a result of that calculation.
11 One can compare EU conditionality with a strategy of “reinforcement by reward” [5]. Guided by this strategy, the EU reacts to compliance by granting rewards, and to non-compliance by withholding them. That is in contrast to reinforcement by punishment, where non-compliance leads to extra costs (“punishment”) [5, p. 497].
12 Although with time the accession framework came to include more safeguard clauses [6], the general approach remains positive in the sense that the heaviest possible penalty (suspension of accession negotiations) is withholding the rewards rather than inducing extra costs.
13 The obvious advantage of this approach is that it allows the EU to exercise considerable transformative power in its neighborhood without unlawfully intervening in the countries’ domestic politics. However, positive conditionality is not without its weaknesses: with EU membership constituting the highest reward possible, there is little that the EU can do if the proposed benefits prove to be insufficient to induce democratic change [5, p. 515]. The only sanctioning power at the EU’s hands – withholding the reward – can only pose a threat to the candidate country when it still considers the reward beneficial.


15 The earlier period of AKP rule (Adalet ve Kalkýnma PartisiJustice and Development Party) is conventionally described in the literature as “the golden age” of Turkey’s democratisation efforts [7].
16 In the 2002-2005 period Turkey introduced a multitude of democratic reforms and was finally rewarded with opening membership negotiations. But the golden age failed to last. The first obstacle in the accession process came in 2005 when Turkey refused to implement the Additional Protocol with regards to the Republic of Cyprus. That first visible instance of non-compliance was followed by a resolute step from the EU: eight negotiation chapters were closed until Turkey would fully implement the Additional Protocol [8].

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