This article provides an in- depth analysis of Italian citizens’ attitudes towards Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU). It identifies opinion patterns in Italy concerning Turkey and key determinants of variation in popular support for Turkey’s possible membership of the EU. This article first analyzes whether the Italian public adopts a utilitarian approach in calculating the perceived costs and benefits of EU enlargement with Turkey. Second, turning to identity- related determinants, it examines whether Italians consider Turkey’s cultural, religious and universal values to be compatible with those of the EU and Italy. Third, in terms of threat- based determinants, it examines whether Turcoscepticism in Italy is based on the fear of an influx of Turks into Europe, both from realistic and symbolic threat perspectives. This article contributes to the burgeoning literature on public opinion by testing how these competing theories help explain attitudes of Italian citizens in the 2000s toward Turkey’s possible EU accession. Through binary logistic regression analysis of Eurobarometer survey data (2000- 2008), the article concludes that pragmatist sociotropic utilitarian considerations, in concert with mutual comprehension of values based on ‘we- feeling’ and perceived symbolic threat of loss of identity and culture, have significant effects on Italian public opinion concerning Turkey’s protracted EU membership bid.

Key Words

Italy, public opinion, Turkey- EU relations, utilitarian theory, identity theory, threat perception, binary logistic regression.


Turkish- Italian relations, which date back to at least the 14th century, have been fairly friendly and cordial at the political and diplomatic levels and have rarely suffered from tensions. Especially during the Cold War, bilateral dialogue was punctuated by commitments of both countries for further economic and political cooperation. As Alessandri and Canan argued, “[i]n the European context, Italy has traditionally been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Turkey’s EU membership...Italy has been one of the earliest and most committed supporters of Turkey’s accession.”1 Although Italian economic stakeholders strongly support Turkey’s accession, a certain level of resistance exists at the political level among political parties, and supporters from the Communist to regionalist parties have mixed and differing motivations for resistance, including religion, identity, and the Kurdish question. The regionalist and Eurosceptic Northern League’s remarkable electoral victory in 2008 showed that Italy’s traditionally positive attitude towards Turkey’s entry into the European Union (EU) is likely to reverse in the foreseeable future. This observation introduces the need to account for the determinants and trends of Italian public opinion on the debate over Turkey’s EU accession.

Italian public opinion has been studied through the Eurobarometer (EB) surveys since the first inception of the systematic surveys in 1974. The earliest EB surveys provided thematic coverage of European citizens’ priorities in the six member states about issues such as the Common Market (EB No: 3, 1975), the then upcoming European Parliament elections in 1979, and the institutional formulation of the European Community (EC). In comparison with more immediate concerns, like the EC’s social policies, regional development differences or the common fight against inflation, Turkey’s relations with the EC have appeared neither on the political nor the public agenda. Even after the third enlargement of the EC in 1986, when Turkey applied for full EC membership (1987), Europeans (including the Italians) still did not see the possibility of a new state joining the EC as a crucial issue. Instead, driven mainly by utilitarian motivations, Europeans (as well as Italians) were frustrated more by the relative costs and benefits of membership for their own country.

After Turkey applied for full membership, only 3% of Italians supported Turkey’s admission (EB No: 30). However, only one out of four Italians considered the “expansion of the EC Turkey” to be “a very important problem.” At the same time, Italians were among the more Turcosceptic Europeans and in 1988 they were more supportive of EC enlargement with countries such as Malta and Cyprus rather than Turkey (EB No: 37).2 By 1992, while EU citizens overall were divided against Turkey’s accession (41% for versus 42% against), Italians were more Turcosceptic with 44% against Turkey’s accession (EB No: 38). That is, Italy was in general not among those European countries favouring EU enlargement.

At the outset of the 21st century, Turkish- EU relations became more politically positive, which was also followed by a positive opinion climate. The European Council adopted the EU- Turkey Accession Partnership in 2001, which provided a road map for Turkey’s EU accession process. Later, at the Copenhagen Summit (2001), the European Council decided to increase EU financial support through the preaccession instrument. This positive political mood was matched by a four point increase in public support in Italy (to 34%). However, there was also a one point increase in opposition to Turkish accession (to 46%, EB No: 56).

The 2002 Copenhagen Summit decided that accession negotiations with Turkey would be opened if, by December 2004, the European Council decided that Turkey could meet the Copenhagen political criteria. The lack of a predetermined membership date for Turkey, however, rekindled the debate over its accession. In Italy, this was reflected in a mood of increased Turcoscepticism at the mass public level (with 31% support versus 48% opposition, EB No: 57). Until the EU’s historical enlargement in the east in 2004, Italian support for enlargement had remained stable with Turkey having the least support of any applicant country. That is, although the European Council decided to open membership talks with Turkey, by 2005, Italian public opinion did not support Turkey’s accession (EB No: 63).

Although a significant proportion of Italians accepted that Turkey forms a part of European geography and to lesser extent of European history (54% and 45% respectively), 56% of Italians nevertheless believed there were significant cultural differences between Turkey and the EU. For Italians, the human rights issue was another problem, with 73% believing that Turkey should respect human rights (EB No: 63). Italy has thus become one of the EU member states in which public opinion generally favoured EU enlargement, yet remained rather sceptical regarding Turkish EU membership, with only 39% approving in 2006 (Special Eurobarometer 255 Report on Attitudes towards European Union Enlargement).

This brief insight into Italian public opinion on Turkey’s EU accession introduces the need for an in-depth analysis of the determinants of public opinion to create a constructive and focused discussion of EU-Turkey relations. This article examines the key determinants of Turcosceptic and Turco-enthusiast attitudes. The rationale that inspired this study is two-fold. Firstly, a number of academic studies have demonstrated the importance and relevance of studying public opinion on EU enlargement, and there is no doubt that understanding the nature and determinants of public opinion are essential to future Turkey-EU relations. As Canan-Sokullu and Kentmen argued, “Turcosceptic citizens might halt Turkey’s accession to the EU by voting against it in referenda or by electing Turcosceptic policy-makers at national and the European levels who would work against Turkey”.3 Yet, research into Italian public opinion regarding enlargement and Turkey’s accession is rather scarce.4 Secondly, as well as its normative imperative, this study is motivated by the need to generate empirical evidence about the dynamics of public attitudes toward candidate countries. As the issue of Turkey’s EU membership climbs higher in the public agenda, and as the public’s attitude is contingent on a complex set of factors rather than a single one, a multidimensional approach is needed. Therefore, it is timely to investigate whether Italians evaluate Turkey’s EU membership bid in terms of the economic utility of enlargement for Italy and Italians, or in terms of identitarian perceptions, or in terms of fears about Turkey prevalent at a public level.

In what follows, I first analyze whether the Italian public adopts a utilitarian approach in calculating the perceived costs and benefits of EU enlargement with Turkey. Do utilitarian calculations of egocentric or sociotropic costs and benefits in a wide range of considerations affect Italian public opinion on Turkey’s EU membership? Second, turning to identity-related explanations, I ask whether Italians consider Turkey’s cultural and religious values to be compatible with those of the EU. To what extent do Italians feel that Christian values and principles, and shared European norms, such as belief in democracy, the rule of law and protection of and respect for human and minority rights, are shared with Muslim Turkey’s values? Third, borrowing from threatbased explanations on EU enlargement, I examine whether Turcoscepticism is based on the fear of an influx of Turks into Europe, from both realistic and symbolic perspectives. To this end, I provide a theoretical overview of public opinion on EU enlargement in the first section. Following the methodological map, through binary logistic regression analysis of Eurobarometer surveys (2000- 2008), I examine the determinants of Italian public opinion on Turkey’s EU membership.