The European Union is desperate to keep immigrants outside its borders, which essentially means keeping them in Turkey, and paying any price for it. It has thus agreed to contribute €3 billion in economic help, to give visas to Turkish citizens and to revive talks for EU membership. While the EU has often mishandled membership negotiations - and consequently paid the price for that - this time it proves fatal.
The EEC/EU has a long and troubled history when it comes to enlargement.
When the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) and later the European Economic Community (1957) were created, the United Kingdom declined to join. Yet, before in 1961 Harold Macmillan applied for membership, followed by Ireland, Denmark, and Norway. The conditions set down by London were however so uncompromising that it felt the EEC was joining the UK, rather than the other way around. French President Charles de Gaulle thus abruptly ended the negotiations offering instead an Association Agreement, which offended Macmillan because it would have put the UK on the same "level" as Greece and Turkey.
The Association Agreement with Greece was in fact frozen in 1967, following the Colonels' coup d'état. The same year, the new Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson re-applied for membership. De Gaulle again vetoed it. In 1969, George Pompidou was elected president. He proposed his European partners three ideas for the EEC future: completion of the common market; progress in the field of economic and monetary policy; and enlargement. In fact, the only result was enlargement, with the UK, Denmark, and Ireland joining the EEC in 1973. As Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, however, she quickly asked for her "money back," thus opening the way for a long series of UK-EEC/EU renegotiations, the last one currently under way.
Meanwhile, the geography of Europe was changing. In 1974, Greece's Colonels were ousted and Antonio Salazar's long dictatorship was overthrown in Portugal. In 1975, Spain's Franco died. It was politically impossible for the EEC to close the door on these new democracies, which needed institutional support to consolidate politically and economically, even though the enlargement would have imposed major costs on the EEC. All three candidate countries were characterized by low wages, high inflation rates, unstable currencies, low-cost agricultural products and underdeveloped industrial sectors.
Pushed by the United States and France -- wishing to strengthen the European Southern flank -- Greece was quickly admitted as the tenth EEC member in 1981, despite the unfinished status of the negotiations. That proved a big mistake: as Andreas Papandreou rose to power, it began asking for special economic benefits. As a direct consequence, negotiations with Spain and Portugal stalled and the two countries only become members in 1986.
Now at twelve, the EEC felt it had reached a size that was likely to remain set for a long time. The other non-EEC European countries seemed unlikely to seek membership, either because they were under Communist rule (the CEECs) or because they were restrained in their international strategies by the legacy of the cold war (such as Finland, Sweden, and Austria). Others, such as Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland, showed no interest in joining.
Everything unexpectedly changed after November 9, 1989, the day the Berlin Wall collapsed. After a first reaction of happiness and hope, European leaders started to worry. Not only were the CEECs in need of economic support, but also the end of the cold war would mean a reunified Germany. In exchange--as Helmut Kohl himself suggested-- it was decided to proceed toward further integration: the Treaty establishing the European Union (TEU) was thus signed in 1992, formalizing the steps toward Economic and Monetary Union.
Yet, the EU member states lost themselves in how to handle the new rounds of enlargements. Three waves of enlargement in fact resulted from the end of the cold war: 1995, 2004, and 2007. The 1995 enlargement was a relatively easy one: Austria, Sweden and Finland were democratic, rich, free market economies with whom negotiations were quickly opened (1992) and closed (1994), bringing the EU to fifteen member states.
The story of enlargement to the east was different. Economic and trade agreements had been signed with Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1988, with Poland in 1989 and with Bulgaria and Romania in 1990. The EU also created ad hoc programs such as Phare and Tacis to help these countries. However, EU member states were worried by both the institutional and the economic implications of such a massive enlargement. The ten prospective new members were poor and would receive more from the EU budget than what they would contribute, while the traditional main contributor - Germany - had turned inward, dealing with its four new eastern Länder.
After timid and soon-abandoned suggestions that the CEECs should create their own organization, the EU offered them a new, upgraded, kind of Association Agreement created to help prepare for membership. AAs were signed with Hungary and Poland in 1992; with the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania in 1993, and with Slovenia in 1996. But the path to full membership was left unclear.
In an effort to clarify, the European Council meeting in Copenhagen in June 1993 decided on a set of criteria--known as the Copenhagen criteria--required for a country to be eligible for EU membership: a working democratic system; the rule of law; respect for human rights and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy; and the ability to take on the obligations of membership (economically and politically). In addition, prospective members are to introduce into their legislation the so-called "acquis communautaire," that is the whole body of EU legislation produced over the years.
Meanwhile, the EU embarked on a never-ending process of internal reforms to adapt its institutional framework - essentially still the one designed for six countries - to the new reality. In June 2001, while campaigning for a yes-vote on the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, then EU Commission President Romano Prodi affirmed that should Ireland did not ratify Nice, the enlargement was going to be "political impossible". As the country endorsed the treaty, the EU found itself bound to speed up accession negotiations, leading to the incorporation of the ten new countries in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.
Differently from Spain and Portugal - seeking to regain international respectability after the long fascist regimes and thus willing to give up sovereignty - the CEECs, whose national sovereignty had been limited by the USSR for almost half a century, were less willing to give it up. Countries such a Poland thus became very vocal in advocating nationalistic positions - in a clear contrast with both the spirit and the letter of the Treaty - often provoking deadlocks and lowest-common-denominator policy decisions.
Yet, it may be easy to overlook the EU's "soft power" success in enlargement; the promise of EU accession has gone a long way to convince the candidate countries to change, enacting domestic reforms and upgrading relations with their neighbours. The "carrot of membership" convinced Croatia (the last country to join, in 2012) to settle disputes over its borders with Slovenia. Macedonia - now a candidate country - normalized its relations with Greece over the country's name dispute.
Similarly, EU pressure led Serbia (also a candidate country alongside Albania and Montenegro) to enhance efforts for the successful arrest of Ratko Mladic and to engage in the normalization of its relations with Kosovo, possibly the main result of the EU foreign policy under Lady Cathy Ashton. The other countries in the Western Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo) face greater domestic and international challenges (for example, not all EU member states have recognized Kosovo's independence) and are unlikely to join before the next decade.
The prospects for Turkey's membership are more complex. The Association agreement was signed in 1963, after a halt due to the military coup. The Agreement was then suspended in 1982, following the 1980 coup. Until 1987, the European Parliament approved 11 resolutions qualifying the regime as oppressive and inadequate for guaranteeing fundamental human rights. Then, in 1987, Turkey applied for full membership. The EEC considered the application as an opportunity to review its Turkish strategy, thus acknowledging Turkey as a "European" country (a prerequisite for application) despite that most of its territory is, in fact, outside it.
Though the custom union was completed in 1995, Turkey political system and security ideology were still considered obstacles to full membership, under the new Copenhagen criteria. The declaration of a full commitment to Turkey's EU membership at the 1999 Helsinki European Council however contributed to stabilizing Turkish politics and generated an unprecedented consensus among the political leadership toward reforms. In view of EU membership, Turkey progressed significantly on civil and human rights, including minority rights and the abolition of death penalty.
In principle, Turkey's EU membership would be in the "national" EU interest. As an EU member state Turkey would give added value to the Union in both energy and geopolitical terms. Unfortunately, in the past years the EU and Turkey may have lost a historic opportunity and started pushing apart.
Over the past few years, Turkey has progressively affirmed itself as a broker in the Middle East and on the international scene. The unrest in the Arab world gave it a unique role: Turkey expanded its economic and diplomatic influence not only in the Middle East, but also in the Balkans. After years of getting ready for EU membership, in April 2011, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that the EU needed Turkey as a member more than Turkey needed the EU, signalling how EU membership was not anymore the primary foreign policy goal of the country. In parallel, Turkey's record on civil liberties, human rights and democratic principles progressively worsened. Since 2006, the EU has pointed to the insufficiency of the government performance. The European Union cannot afford now to overlook them, not even for the sake of the immigration crises. Doing so could have devastating consequences both domestically and externally.
Domestically, the quality of democracy is slowly deteriorating. Xenophobic reactions are spreading in once integration-heaven Scandinavia. The Union is keeping a blind eye on developments in countries like Hungary, whose leader Victor Orban has been half-jokingly nicknamed by Commission President Jean-Claude Junker "Le Dictateur". Italy and Portugal have experienced rather exceptional leading roles of the Presidents of the Republic in naming governments. In France and Belgium, the repression of civil freedoms is going well beyond the need to fight terrorism - not even in the 1970s were such drastic measures taken.
Externally, the European Union's main foreign policy tool is soft power. The EU is already seeing two of its greatest "carrots" - the promise of economic development and increased mobility - diminished. Helping Turkey financially is fair; liberalizing visa is a long-due policy; relaunching EU membership negotiations overlooking Turkey's political inconsistencies is a mistake. If the EU renegades on its founding values for the sake of stopping the immigrants, why should the other candidate countries be compelled to continue working towards meeting the Copenhagen criteria? How can the EU values-based, soft-power foreign policy retain any of its credibility?
As the former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors once said, leaders such as François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Valéry Giscard-d'Estaing, Konrad Adenauer have left their mark on European history because they had a European vision. Giving in to the immediate needs, failing to see their long-term consequences, equals to having no European vision. With no vision, there shall be no European Union. Without the Union, immigration will soon become the least of the problems for the European continent.