Fact Check: would the UK have a veto on Turkey joining the EU?

European Council President, Donald Tusk, meets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on a visit to Ankara in September 2015. Turkish President Press Office

No [the British government] doesn’t [have a veto]. We are not going to be able to have a say … I do not think that the EU is going to keep Turkey out. I think it is going to join.

Penny Mordaunt, armed forces minister, speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on May 22.

Turkey is not about to join the EU. The spectre of Turkish membership has long been used to rally eurosceptic sentiment. In 2005, it was a factor in the rejection of the EU’s draft Constitutional Treaty in France and the Netherlands. Turkey was nowhere near joining the EU then and it’s probably further away now.

Putting that to one side, Mordaunt’s comments raise the question of whether existing EU member states are able to veto new states joining. The answer is yes. Accession of a candidate state must be approved unanimously by the Council of the EU, which is made up of representatives from each member state, and ratified by all national parliaments. This gives each member state a veto over the process. So even if Turkey were to fulfil all of the eligibility criteria (it’s not even close), and even if all other member states favoured accession (they don’t), the UK would still be able to veto.

Who can join

Since the Single European Act of 1987, the EU (then the European Economic Community) has been moving away from unanimity in law making. Qualified majority voting in the Council of the EU is now the norm in most areas regarding the common market and some areas of justice and home affairs. Under this system, a measure is passed if it is approved by at least 55% of member states (16 out of 28) representing at least 65% of the EU’s population.

But there are a number of sensitive policy areas in which unanimity is still the rule. Accession of new member states is one such area.

Originally, the criteria for EEC membership were rather minimal. Article 237 of the 1957 Rome Treaty simply stated that “any European state may apply to become a member of the community”. Even then, existing members had a veto over prospective members.

France twice vetoed Britain’s membership ambitions (in 1963 and 1967) because French President Charles de Gaulle feared that Britain would be a Trojan horse for American influence in Europe and was also wary of Britain’s potentially liberalising influence on protectionist policies. It was only after de Gaulle left office that Britain restarted the accession process, eventually joining in 1973.

Veto and delays

The end of communism in Europe opened up, for the first time, the very real possibility of mass expansion of the EEC/EU. This meant a new accession procedure was needed. The 1993 Copenhagen Criteria added detailed requirements in the areas of democracy, human rights, economic capacity and ability to take on the legal obligations of membership.

Croatia is the most recent country to complete the process. Its accession treaty was signed by the 27 existing member states in December 2011, and subsequently ratified by each national parliament, enabling the country to join in July 2013. Also at the December 2011 council meeting, EU leaders decided to postpone Serbia’s candidature, a small reminder that member states have many opportunities to delay or derail expansion if they so wish.

This brings us back to Turkey. The unpopularity of its prospective membership among Europeans partly explains why its candidature has progressed so slowly. The rest of the explanation lies in Turkey’s failure to meet the eligibility criteria. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the council will be in a position to approve Turkish membership anytime soon. But, if it is, Britain will have a veto.

Verdict

Existing individual EU member states do hold a veto over new states joining. Assuming an applicant state meets the onerous eligibility requirements; accession must still be unanimously approved by the Council of the EU and ratified by each national parliament.

Review

Philip Daniels, senior lecturer in international political economy, University of Newcastle

The author’s analysis of the legal and political obstacles to possible Turkish accession presents an accurate picture of the current situation.

The legal position on possible Turkish accession to the EU is very clear: each member state would have to agree in the Council of the EU to permit Turkey’s entry and a decision to allow it to join would then have to be ratified by each national parliament of the existing member states. In this sense (and contrary to Penny Mordaunt’s claim), the UK (and every other member state) has a double veto on the accession of any new member state.

The whole issue of Turkey’s accession moved up the political agenda as result of the EU-Turkey deal to address the migration crisis in early spring 2016. Those opposed to Turkey’s membership of the EU fear that this deal has started a political process which will accelerate Turkey’s accession. Turkey has long sought membership of the EU but progress towards that goal has been halting at best. It applied to join the European Economic Community in 1987 and accession negotiations eventually began in October 2005.

A number of problems have effectively stalled the process and there is little likelihood that these difficulties will be overcome any time in the near future. Turkey is struggling to meet a number of the conditions for entry (relating to press freedom, respect for human rights, the rule of law and free speech among other things). In addition, the political climate in Europe and the opposition to immigration in several EU member states makes Turkish accession highly improbable.

A further obstacle to Turkish accession is the opposition from the Republic of Cyprus that has been instrumental in putting a brake on negotiations. A condition for entry into the EU is that Turkey should recognise the Republic of Cyprus as a sovereign state, but this is politically very challenging for the Turkish government.

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