Turkey’s prospects of EU membership are more uncertain than ever before. European leaders spent their residual political capital on combatting the eurozone crisis and are reluctant to champion the unpopular EU enlargement project. Can Ankara and Brussels develop a framework for reinvigorating the relationship, or is it time for the two to go their separate ways?

To mark the launch of his latest Carnegie paper, “Avoiding a Divorce: A Virtual EU Membership for Turkey,” Carnegie’s Sinan Ülgen, together with Ambassador Selim Yenel, Permanent Delegate of Turkey to the European Union, and Carnegie’s Marc Pierini, discussed his proposal for breaking the stalemate between Ankara and Brussels. Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, moderated.


  • The State of Accession: After seven years of accession talk between Turkey and the EU, participants said that negotiations have stalled and the outlook for accession seems bleak. To avoid further deterioration of an already acrimonious relationship, they warned that a solution between Ankara and Brussels must be attained sooner rather than later. While external events such as the recent French elections and a potential deal on Cyprus might break the Turkey-EU stalemate, it ultimately depends on political will to drive the process forward, they added.
  • Virtual Membership?: In the current political climate, neither public nor political spheres in Turkey are willing to accept a model of association that would entail the cession of national sovereignty, participants said. On the other end of the spectrum, a mere strategic partnership would not be substantive enough, one participant added. The proposed virtual membership would lie in between the two, resembling a more enhanced version of Europe’s relation with Switzerland.
  • A Framework for Implementation: A virtual membership includes the extension of judicial enforcement, as well as the right for Turkey to opt into the policy process of the EU and participation in the decision-making process, participants explained. Decisions would be taken on a case-by-case basis to encourage cooperation in less sensitive policy areas. Institutional framework details would be determined by the political environment.
  • Impact on the Accession Process: In an optimal scenario, virtual membership would serve as a stepping stone towards Turkey’s EU accession, participants said. It would facilitate cooperation in areas such as trade, foreign policy, and climate change. Moreover, they added, endorsing a virtual membership would provide Turkey’s leaders with a strong political momentum to reignite accession negotiations.
  • Potential Downsides: One participant mentioned a concern that a virtual membership might be perceived, mistakenly, as a toned-down replacement to a full EU accession. Due to its intergovernmental nature, a virtual membership would also not have as transformative an impact on Turkey’s society as an accession would, they added.