What do Turkey’s other presidential candidates think about the EU?

When it comes to the European Union, it is the lack of progress in Turkey’s accession process since Ankara gained candidate status in 2004 that has propelled Turkey’s gradual but persistent foreign policy pivot towards the east over the last decade. There are six candidates standing in Turkey’s June 24 presidential elections. I have not yet encountered a concise analysis candidates’ attitudes towards Turkey’s misadventure with the EU. I’m going to skip speaking on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s position on the EU as there have been plenty of op-eds written on that over the last 16 years.   

Let us start with Muharrem İnce, a former physics teacher, who is the presidential candidate for the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Ince’s candidacy has breathed new life into dormant pro-secular CHP. İnce, who has twice tried and twice failed to challenge the soft-spoken Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu for leadership of the CHP, is now trying his luck against Erdoğan.

muharrem ince

İnce is very clear about his commitment to Turkey’s bid to join the EU. He has repeatedly emphasised his determination to put EU accession at the top of his foreign policy agenda. İnce, although careful not to scare away CHP’s secularist-nationalist constituency, points out that Turkey’s long journey towards the EU did not start with the AKP, but much earlier in late 1830s, during the Ottoman Empire’s Tanzimat period.

According to İnce, Erdoğan’s AKP gradually discarded the goal of EU membership when it no longer needed European support to consolidate its political control of the state. İnce pledges to reinvigorate Turkey’s EU integration process. He cites broad support among Turkey’s youth for a future with better employment opportunities as the main reason for Turkey to embrace further European integration in higher education. İnce also promises to give back dignity to the Foreign Ministry’s professional diplomats who are constantly ridiculed by Islamist government trolls.

Meral Akşener, a neo-nationalist centre right candidate, also emphasizes the need to re-instate European standards in Turkey when it comes basic freedoms of speech in Turkish media, so that ultimately Turkish passport holders would get the respect they deserve with visa-free travel to Europe.

meral akşener

Akşener cites eventual EU membership as Turkey’s long-term foreign policy goal along with a desire to embrace the European humanistic tradition. Akşener often accuses the Turkish government of double talk about Europe. She says Brussels is very well aware of Ankara’s disingenuous attitude about implementing the necessary reforms to close the remaining 29 chapters of the accession process. Akşener argues that once mainstream Turkish politicians fully comprehend and internalise values such as humanism, democracy, civil liberties and human rights without losing their footing of Anatolian values, the gates of Europe will eventually open up for Turkey.

Selahattin Demirtaş, the imprisoned Kurdish presidential candidate, seen by some as Turkey’s Mandela, is known for his long-time support for Turkey’s EU accession process. Demirtaş pledges to uphold human rights, local democracy, separation of powers and the rule of law as the main tenets of his future presidency. Demirtaş suggests Ankara needs to re-evaluate the pace of its EU accession process.

selahattin demirtaş

What separates Demirtaş from other candidates is his unwavering criticism of Brussels’ neo-liberal economic agenda, which according to him, only made Greece’s economic crisis worse. Demirtaş vocally support what he calls the common struggle of the oppressed people within the EU citing political instability in places such as Catalonia, the Basque Country and Northern Ireland. While pushing for Turkey’s accession to the EU, Demirtaş pledges his party’s solidarity in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism, human trafficking, the refugee crisis, international drug trade, forced displacement, xenophobia and Islamophobia, all very important challenges facing the future of Europe. Demirtaş argues the current authoritarian challenge to liberalism in Europe and elsewhere could best be addressed by raising global consciousness.

One of the most interesting candidates for presidency is Temel Karamollaoğlu, the traditional Islamist, who used to be the mayor of Sivas in the 1990s, a conservative town in Anatolia’s heartland. Karamollaoğlu has always maintained an anti-EU position. He argues there is a need for a revision of EU-Turkey relations.


Karamollaoğlu does not hesitate to call the EU a civilisational project, and for that reason argues that Turkey, as a Muslim majority country will never be allowed into the EU even if it closes all 30 chapters. Instead, Karamollaoğlu suggests negotiating a privileged partnership with the EU on issues such as trade, investments, travel arrangements, foreign relations and on other political issues similar to that of Norway, or the status Britain is trying to secure.

The fringe candidate Doğu Perinçek is a former Maoist, has one constant political line in his career; opposing EU influence in Turkey altogether.  Perinçek rejects anything more than a cordial relationship with Brussels and other prominent European capitals as a way to break away from what he sees as Western imperialist structures for once and for all.

dogu perincek

In the past, Perinçek had quite a few run-ins with European governments when he openly contested their views on the Armenian genocide. As a Eurasianist, Perinçek is rumoured to be the main influence behind Erdoğan’s pivot towards Moscow. In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in 2016, Perinçek gave his open support to Erdoğan’s purge of Gülenists from the security services and bureaucracy structures.

The European Union is not the main focus of any of the presidential campaigns. However, the struggle for democracy, human rights and civil liberties in Turkey always had a European anchor through Turkey’s membership of the European Council and other European institutions. Regardless of who becomes the next president, the European Union accession process will be revisited, maybe for the final time.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.