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The Accession of Turkey to the EU: Problematic European or European Problem?

Nargiz Hajiyeva[1], Political Science and Diplomacy, Vytautas Magnus University


The relationship between the European Union (EU) and Turkey is of long standing, and has experienced many ups and downs. The main issues have been the emergence of political turmoil, territorial disputes between Cyprus and Turkey, Armenian Genocide problems and lack of democracy. Turkey has always had the long-term goal of joining the EU, but the EU has imposed many conditions before this can be achieved, requiring Turkey to change its domestic policy and to accept liberalisation and democratic institutionalisation in the country. This means that Turkey's accession to the EU is not imminent; many scholars think the process will take a long time. Furthermore, they state that Turkey, as an upcoming member state, is a potential counterpart for the EU in terms of not only economic interests, but also huge accession to the alternative energy supplies. Thus, it would be a better approach for Turkey to collaborate on shared concerns and interests in tandem with the EU.

Keywords: EU, Turkey, international relations, accession to the EU, democracy.

Introduction: overview of relations between Turkey and the EU

Turkey has always been one of the most important countries for the European Union (EU). As an integral part of Europe, Turkey has played a tremendous role in the history of Europe, but over time its relations with the EU have waxed and waned. Therefore, it is important to contextualise our discussion by providing an explanatory background, before we go on to investigate the main issues in detail. The accession process of Turkey to the EU has to date taken the 'open-ended process', meaning that it is not a short-term process but rather will take a protracted time. The open-ended process necessitates an effective partnership between Turkey and the EU until full membership status is reached (Buharali, n.d.).

Turkey has been engaged in accession negotiations with the EU since 2005, but to date fewer than half of the 35 negotiation chapters have been opened. According to the report of the European Commission concerning the negotiation chapters, only 14 out of 35 chapters have been opened with the exception of the science and research chapter that was opened and frozen provisionally in the same year, 2006 (, n.d.). A list of the chapters and their status at the time of writing may be found in Appendix 1.

Turkey could speed up the accession process and take positive steps towards membership by opening Chapter 23, judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 15, energy policy. But Turkey denies some major chapters because they require Turkey to allow Cyprus-flagged vessels and ships into its ports. Chapter 15 is much more important for the EU in terms of the pivotal energy game of Turkey not only in South Caucasus but also in the Middle East region. The main interest of the EU in this chapter relates to Cyprus; by allowing Cypriot vessels to Turkish ports, the EU can benefit from the cheap and convenient transportation of Turkish energy resources through Cyprus directly to Europe. Turkey and the EU need to find a common way in matters of external policy, mostly foreign policy and security issues, and the constant problem is related to the unblocked Chapters 31 and 32 respectively. By permitting the implementation of these chapters Turkey can attain many goals and get access to its EU membership opportunity.

Unfortunately, the addressing of these chapters is impeded by the emergence of democratic deficits – and in some cases the misuse of human rights within its society – and the opposition in government structures and civil societies towards the EU. This leaves Turkey behind, weakens its accession process to the EU, and elongates the process. At the same time, the unresolved dispute between Greece and Turkey hinders the process of negotiations and does not allow it to take the effective way of strategic policy towards the EU.

Generally, Ankara's accession negotiations with Brussels have slowed significantly. After the 2002 crisis, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or Justice and Development Party) rose to power in Turkey and its main ambition was to take a decisive step towards European integration. The visa liberalisation dialogue between the EU and Turkey launched on 16 December 2013, with the presentation of the European Commission roadmap project on this given issue that followed the first 2014 report of the European Commission concerning the requirements of the roadmap project for Turkey.

Since the 2013 visa liberalisation deal, Turkey and the EU have been working together on this issue. At the same time, Turkey for the successful preparation for accession also benefited from the instrumental role of pre-accession funds, meaning that it received €4.8 billion between 2007 and 2013, and a further €4.5 billion between 2014 and 2020 (Pierini and Ülgen, 2016). The main instrumental role of pre-accession aid, which is the core of the accession negotiations, is to prepare institutions and the main policies in Turkey for harmonisation and successful collaboration with their EU counterparts; and to provide liberalisation and democratisation of main civil societies which will be able to take the decisive foreign policy in order to be accepted by the EU. It is an unavoidable fact that the important role of civil societies within the Turkish environment can force the major powers to take steps towards European integration. However, the strong leadership spirit of AKP under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan impedes the actions and policies of the civil society.

What do the EU and Turkey mean to each other?

According to the Transatlantic Trend survey by the German Marshall Fund of the US, in 2016 53 per cent of the Turkish public held the opinion that Turkish accession to the EU was beneficial, up from 45 per cent the previous year (Pierini and Ülgen, 2016: 6). The question must be asked, what does Turkey mean for the EU? What are the pivotal interests of the EU in Turkish membership? There are some detailed explanations for those questions. First of all, Turkey has a large population of some 75 million inhabitants, and has more rapid economic growth than any other EU member state. The power of economic growth is much more beneficial than any other EU member states. When we take the example of Visegrad group countries (Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary), it is clear that Turkey's strong economy gives it a place in the global economy. From the economic perspective, Turkey is an eligible partner for the EU.

With the exception of the 2009 global economic crisis, Turkey saw a significant increase in its economy that approached an annual average rate of 7.5 per cent during the past seven years. As a consequence, Turkey has reached the rank of being the sixteenth largest economy in the world, with a GDP fast approaching the $1 trillion mark; much bigger than most EU countries. In the first half of 2010, Turkey had the fastest economic growth rate among the OECD economies, at 11 per cent (Grabbe and Ülgen, 2010).

Secondly, Turkey is a serious and strong foreign policy player in its region, in the Middle East, in the Syrian process and in its close relations with Arabian countries. To a large extent, The EU is eager to share its influence in Arab states and Middle East rather than Turkey. In the contemporary international relations each nation state witnesses the growing role of Turkey of its foreign policy and geostrategic steps in the region.

Consequently, in order to tackle the problems arising in these regions, the EU needs a reliable and strong partner like Turkey in order to give it direct access to these countries. Turkey has recently taken a more visible and vigorous regional engagement policy that is affecting many areas of shared concern with the EU. The main objective of Turkey's diplomatic activism and deep engagement policy, in particular in the Middle East, is to commit itself to the settlement of frozen conflicts, and to play the third party role as a mediator in the region. As a constructive regional player, the growing potential image of Turkey's mediation efforts or third party involvement in bilateral and regional relations is another fundamental indicator of its capacity for successful foreign policy and regional power.

Ankara has engaged in different kinds of diplomatic negotiations and efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia and Serbia, Georgia, Israel, Pakistan and even in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey, as the largest non-EU contributor to the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, provided the second-largest contingent of 255 military personnel to the European Union Force (EUFOR). It has also participated in different kinds of CSDP operations namely CONCORDIA, the military operation in Macedonia; PROXIMA, the police mission in Macedonia; and EUPOL, the police mission in Kinshasa (Redmond, 2007). Thus, Turkey's increasing role and its third-party involvement as a mediator sometimes threatens the interests and ambitions of the EU in these aforementioned regions. Therefore, the main interest of the EU in the accession and collaboration process with the Turkey is to reach the shared interests and tackle the common concerns and work in tandem in these regions.

By embracing Turkish foreign policy within the structures and policies of the EU, they can expand the processes and other regional engagement policy in the region based on their interests; a shared power capability and engagement policy. Hence, the EU has a genuine interest in such a kind of joint endeavour, and is eager to open the chapter on foreign and security policy. A fuller engagement with the EU on foreign policy would also positively affect the transatlantic relationship and open up different options in the foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives of Turkey.

Another pivotal interest is the growing energy role of Turkey in European energy policy. Turkey, as a reliable and convenient partner, is an open green path to the alternative energy resources which are able to lessen the dependency of European countries on Russian gas. Generally, this can be a big threat from the Russian side, and the EU tends to choose the transformative leverage policy towards Russia due to its dependency on Russian gas. One of Turkey's main ambitions is to impose its new pipeline diplomacy in the Caspian region that can give the authorisation to Turkey in order to exhibit itself as an energy boss in the future. Turkey's energy interests mainly premise on the energy-efficient projects regarding TAP (Trans Adriatic Pipeline), TANAP (Trans Anatolian Natural Gas Project), and NABUCCO (South Stream Gas Pipeline). Thus, Turkey is a trustworthy provider of transit routes between Europe and Asia; however Chapter 15 on energy policy was blocked for a while because of unsolved disputes with Cyprus and Turkish apparent disagreement.

Currently, the lack of mutual satisfaction and content between the EU and Turkey in security and foreign policy areas also affects the relations between NATO and the EU. For a coming perspective, the optimal way is to reach mutual content and shared interests in tandem to solve the rest of problems arising in the region, and try to deal with the security and engagement policy. Thus the EU should have to not only see Turkey as a decent candidate for accession, but also to view Ankara as a significant potential advantage for effective multilateral policy. From Turkey's stance, the relations with the EU can be considered as the appropriate diplomatic steps towards the implementation of decisive policies. Turkey understands that the EU as an external, almost international, actor has a huge role in different areas from science and research policy to agreements in energy field, and is able to initiate different projects inclining to the development and whole engagement of member states (Tocci, 2014).

The relations between Turkey and the EU are not actually worse, and have waxed and waned at different times due to changes in the political situation. Turkey clearly understands that close relations with the EU can provide potential options to Turkey to engage in different security and foreign policy issues. However, in Turkey itself there are opposition forces that are not supporting the initiatives and engagement policy of the EU, and this impedes the EU plans and interests with Turkey. The immaturity of civil societies in Turkey also hinders its EU accession process. At the same time democratic deficits, the unblocked free press and media, abuse of human rights, the mass flow of refugees due to the crises in Syria and Iraq, and political perplexing hinder Turkey's accession process. The transformation of Turkish foreign policy towards the EU can change the power relationship between them and open up successful ways to collaborate; it will give a huge role to the EU to share its influence in the Middle East and Arab states. There is one important factor that the involvement of Turkey as a member state in future can open the huge way in front of Arab states in order to strengthen EU-MENA cooperation.. Ostensibly, Arabian countries have always been in the close relationship with Turkey and always supported its foreign policy as well.

Currently, the mass flow of refugees due to a crisis in the Middle East, in particular in Syria and Iraq, puts the security issue and economic situation in jeopardy not only in European countries, but also in Turkey. The main destination of the refugees is Turkey; via it they are moving to Europe (Pierini and Ülgen, 2014). As a result of the mass hysteria stemming from the refugee crisis, the European Commission launched the EU–Turkey Joint Action Plan (JAP) on 29 November 2015, at the EU–Turkey summit, (Third Implementation Report) which envisaged both short-term and intermediate-term actions, aiming at pursuing co-operation for the support of Syrian refugees under temporary protection and their host communities in Turkey, strengthening co-operation in order to prevent irregular migration flows to the EU through Turkey, and approaching settlement on the migration flows and helping to manage unprecedented refugee migration.

Currently, the attitudes and stances of the EU member states vary towards the prospective membership of Turkey in the EU. In order to comprehend the positions of member states, it is important to investigate their interests in Turkey's accession to the EU. The biggest dissatisfaction comes from France and Germany, which do not want Turkey to be a member of the EU, and from Austria, an opponent of the Turkish accession to the Union which does not have in mind to show any efforts towards Turkey. The other small states including Visegrad group countries and the Baltic states, show marginal or divided positions in favor of Turkey's accession to the EU. Poland and Romania can be considered the stable supporters of the Turkey in this process. From the point of Italy, Spain and Portugal, Turkey is seen as a reliable counterpart in the European integration process and has the potential to stabilise the geopolitical situation and keep the status quo environment within Europe; and through the official acceptance of Turkey, the EU can contrive an engagement policy in tandem with Turkey concerning shared concerns and common interests in the Middle East and Arab states. Many hold the opinion that Turkey is a convenient and well-equipped counterpart in order to arrange mediation policy in the Middle East region than other EU countries.

Amid the 2009 Gaza crisis, Turkish diplomats were able to act as a third party or as successful mediators and made decisive negotiations with Hamas leaders; the country has comparatively good relations with Israel. Some analysts point out that it comes from the far more massive differences in cultural, political and geographic aspects between these countries and the EU. The UK is also a supporter of Turkey's application to the EU, as former Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned that official acceptance of Turkey to membership was essential for economic development, security and diplomatic initiatives (Hope, 2014).

Since the end of the Napoleonic war and the emergence of the new international system called Concert of Europe, Europe has always seen Turkey in potential opposition to European countries in terms of geopolitical, economic and cultural factors (mainly religion and Europe's Christian morality). Today also, it is undeniable that some European countries abovementioned argue that the official acceptance of Turkey as a member state to the EU will bring it to an end and will destroy the European integration and force it into repression. Turkey's accession, they argue, would result in counter-terrorism and the spread of Islam fundamentalism across Europe; this would collapse the unified Christian community of Europe. At the same time, these challenges to the accession process can be dealt with the religious factors that the almost 70 million Muslims living in Turkey will be able to dominate the Christian community) and d the morality of 'Europeaness'. As a consequence, two tremendous religions might come tête-à-tête in the region and cause the dissolution of 'Europeaness dogma' (Muehlenhoff, 2016). But what is the definition of Europeans in reality? From the standpoint of some critical analysts to date, even Europeans themselves have not proved or interpreted the meaning of being European or Europeaness. When we trace back to the period of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) established on 18 April 1951, we can see that even in the 237 Articles of the Coal and Steel Community it was mentioned that any European state could join and be a basic member state of the community. In fact, in the 1950s, the French Foreign Minister and one of the key founders of the ECSC Robert Schumann, in his historical speech on behalf of European security and solidarity, did not merely mention European countries for future membership.

Figure 1: The three basic explanatory causes of the main challenges to the accession of Turkey to the EU.

In conclusion, the relationship between Turkey and the EU has many ups and downs. However there is a clear reality that their effective partnership might give them the opportunity to tackle the problems concerning not only Europe itself, but also the Middle East. Transition from competition to collaboration can give them benefits and gain them a win–win position in different fields including energy, free trade and visa liberalisation, democratic values, healthcare and education and related areas. Hence, in any case, collaboration is much more beneficial than competition. Collaboration stands on the 'win–win' proposition and is inclined to the mutual perceptions of the parties. However, the competition mainly focuses on the success of only one party and does not give a chance to the other one. Therefore, the relationship between Turkey and the EU should be characterised from the prism of collaboration rather than competition, because both of them have a huge potential in order to participate in and reach a 'win–win' position within the international system.


Currently, Turkey is facing many difficulties due to the mass flow of refugees from the Middle East, in particular from Syria and Iraq; political perplexing and weak engagement of civil societies; violation of human rights; suppression of media; and the hybrid government structure under the control of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the same time, the role of Turkey in European security strategy is undeniable. The hybrid system of government under the rule of the AKP produced many challenges and obstacles concerning the rule of law, human rights and freedom of press media. In recent years, Turkey not only violated human rights but also undermined the freedom of media as well.

Generally, the EU is interested in mitigating the challenges arising in Turkey and in some way intends to commit it to a different kind of engagement policy and the implementation of essential chapters. The prevalence of those problems certainly has an effect upon Turkey's foreign policy towards the EU. In some way, it prevents the imminent accession of it to the EU. According to the development index of 2015, by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Turkey saw a moderate decrease in its democracy index in 2015 compared to the other years (see Appendices 2 and 3).

According to the report of the Freedom of the Press, Turkish standards of journalism stumbled for a fifth consecutive year. Simultaneously, Freedom House states that the Turkish press is not free. As a consequence, Turkey was placed 149th among 180 countries in 2015 which is even beneath Myanmar, Mali, and Zimbabwe (see Appendix 4). Seizing and suppressing critical media and prosecuting journalists has happened often in recent years; in 2015 alone, more than 30 journalists were detained for stating their opinion and thoughts. Thus the EU is facing many obstacles and difficulties both from Turkish domestic policy and from mass irregular refugee flows to Greece via Turkey (see Appendices 5 and 6). These arduous processes cycling in the region put the EU efforts behind and as a result, it might not cope with the problems effectively. The EU in this way needs to undertake another constructive approach towards Turkey's foreign policy and external actions.

Migration and mobility

Politically speaking, the process of visa liberalisation has until recently been hindered due to internal and external factors between Turkey and the EU. The first part of the admission agreement entered into force on 1 October 2014, with the acceptance of the agreement by the Turkish parliament. Afterwards, the European Commission issued the roadmap on visa liberalisation concerning the irregular migration of refugees via Turkey to Europe, bearing in mind that Turkey would have to fulfill the requirements detailed in the report. The EU JAP, as an important document, put many liabilities and duties on Turkey in conjunction with the mass refugee flows from the Middle East countries. In order to boost relations in the field of visa liberalisation and the mobility of people, Turkey, first of all, would have to accept acquis communautaire which accentuates accumulated legislation, legal acts, and court decisions which constitute the body of European Union law. In the next stage, the country should have to tackle the problems concerning domestic and external factors. According to some analysts, the accession of Turkey after this time will be subject to a further prolonged process and it is not an imminent procedure for Turkey that has many restrictions on the accession negotiations. Simultaneously, more than half of the chapters (see Appenidx 1) are unclogged. In 2015, negotiations were opened on Chapter 17 aimed at the development of economic and monetary policy. On 30 June 2016 an accession conference was held with Turkey, and the main talks premised on the opening of Chapter 33, financial and budgetary provisions (see Appendices 7 and 8).

Figure 2: The process of accession of Turkey to the EU market.

Figure 3: The process of accession of Turkey to the EU: free movement of people.

Energy policy

Energy is important for the process of economic development in each state, and Turkey has chosen the security of energy as one of its main priorities. Its geo-energy position shows itself in different geographical locations where it is rich in energy resources. The geo-energy position of Turkey mainly concerns becoming a natural energy bridge between East and West, North and South. Nowadays, Turkey seeks to increase domestic resources by liberalising its energy market, and to improve its energy efficiency by organising economic and energy projects. Security, and in particular energy security, is necessary for Turkey both within it own borders and also in the wider Caspian region. Turkey's energy interests mainly premise on energy-efficient projects regarding the TAP, the TANAP, and NABUCCO (South Stream Gas Pipeline) (TANAP, n.d.).

Turkey, as a reliable provider of transit routes between Europe and Asia, has both strategic and economic impacts in the Caspian region. Relations with the South Caucasus countries have strengthened its position in the region. Turkey currently draws attention to the TANAP gas pipeline that envisages bringing natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz-2 gas field and the other Caspian Sea areas to Turkey, and via Turkey directly to Europe, in order to meet the natural gas needs of both Europe and Turkey (Abbasbeyli and Sadikov, 2010). The successful gas project as 'the window opening to Europe' together with South Caucasus Pipeline (SCP) and the TAP constitute the basic elements of the Southern Gas Corridor. Therefore, this 'win–win' purpose is to create a stable (or balanced) interdependence to make reliable relations possible on large energy projects. Thus, Turkey's role in the European energy policy is undeniable and as a successful energy counterpart it can implement the flagship initiative on energy policy. However the unblocked condition of Chapter 15 on energy policy due to the unsolved Cyprus issues hinders the negotiations process. For future years, if Turkey has in mind to open Chapter 15, the EU will not only provide its diversification of energy with different energy alternatives, but also gain a strong ally in this area. Briefly, Turkish energy interests premise on a multi-sided strategy. Thus the access to flexible LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) is a main priority for the major regional power, in particular, Turkey and the EU. Forming the LNG gas export accessibility can open a new door for Turkey in the way of diversification of energy supplies. On the eve of World War II, The Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill emphasised the vital importance of diversification of energy supplies that in the future would have been able to provide the national security of each nation state. Thus, the access to flexible liquid natural gas (LNG) demands the involvement of new energy-efficient technologies in the energy sector by the means of effective collaboration between Turkey and the EU.


In-depth analysis of research revealed the following consequences.

It was perceived that relations between the EU and Turkey have undergone a long development process. Major accession negotiations were finally commenced in October 2005. After that time Turkey opened some chapters of the EU policy, and engaged in some areas; however, there are some restrictions over the rest of chapters concerning the unresolved disputes between Cyprus and Turkey, Turkish dissatisfaction over the basic rights of Kurdish minorities and a hybrid political system.

The research showed that generally, the relations can be considered in terms of competition and collaboration. From the competition perspective, Turkey can become dominant in some regions, especially in the Middle East; Turkey as a basic energy hub between East and West might have future energy projects with not only Russia but also Iran. Thus, it can lessen the EU influence in the region. From the prism of collaboration the EU will not only gain a reliable partner, but will also be able to implement engagement policy towards the Middle East and other Arabian countries via the hand of Turkey because of its geographical, cultural and political proximity.

The development of the relationship in recent years has faced many internal and external challenges and obstacles concerning the non-free press media, violation of human rights and hybrid political perplexing. Regarding external challenges it deals with the Kurdish problem, Armenian Genocide problem, ISIS and the rise of separatist movements. Therefore, Turkey has many problems that must be tackled step by step, it seems to some scholars; Turkey's accession to the EU will not be a short and straightforward process. The problem itself cannot deal with only Turkey; it also embraces mass hysteria and the dissatisfaction of the Christian community in Europe. The lack of major support from France and Germany, the spirit of Christian morality, and apparent cultural differences also impedes the future development of Turkey's accession.

List of figures

Figure 1: The three basic explanatory causes of main challenges on the accession way of Turkey to EU (author).

Figure 2: The process of accession of Turkey to the EU market (author).

Figure 3: The process of accession of Turkey to the EU: free movement of people (author).

Appendix 1

Appendix 1 shows that less than half of the chapters have been opened to date; Chapter 15 on science and research was closed provisionally. Source: EU official website,

Appendix 2

Appendix 2 illustrates Turkey's Democracy Index between 2010 and 2015. Source: Democracy Index 2015, Economist Intelligence Unit, graph by author.

Appendix 3

Appendix 3 depicts the Democracy Index of Turkey during 2015. Source: Democracy Index 2015, Economist Intelligence Unit, graph by author.

Appendix 4

Appendix 4 shows the World Press Freedom Index, Turkey in different years. Source: Reporters without Borders for freedom of information, chart by author.

Appendix 5

Appendix 5 indicates the weekly irregular entrances to Greece via Turkey between December 2015 and February 2016. Source: Frontex Western Balkans reporting data.

Appendix 6

Appendix 6 depicts the monthly irregular entries to Greece via Turkey between September 2015 and February 2016. Source: Frontex FRAN data (2015) and Western Balkans reporting data (January–February 2016).

Appendix 7

Appendix 7 illustrates Trade Freedom in Turkey in different periods (with %). Source: 2016 Index of Economic Freedom,, graph by author.

Appendix 8

Appendix 8 shows the Index of Economic Freedom, 2016 Turkey in different periods, (with %) 2011–16. Source: 2016 Index of Economic Freedom,, chart by author.


[1] Nargiz Uzeir Hajiyeva is an independent researcher and a policy analyst from Azerbaijan. She holds a Bachelor’s degree (Baku State University) and a Master’s degree (Vytautas Magnus University and Institute de Politique de Grenoble, Sciences PO) in International Relations and Diplomacy. Her main research fields concern on international security and foreign policy issues, energy security, cultural and political history, global political economy and international public law. She worked as an independent researcher at the Corvinus University of Budapest Cold War History Research Center. She was also a successful participant in the Stimson Institute’s International Student Essay Contest exploring how to prevent the proliferation of the world's most dangerous weapons. She is an author of book titled Energy as a clash point of interests between Iran and Turkey in South Caucasus. Between 2014 and 2015, she worked as a Chief Advisor and First Responsible Chairman in International and Legal Affairs at the Executive Power of Ganja. At that time, she also held the position of Chief Economist at the Heydar Aliyev Center Ganja Azerbaijan. Currently, she is pursuing her profession as an independent diplomatic researcher at International Relations Institute, Prague, under the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


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To cite this paper please use the following details: Hajiyeva, N. (2017), 'The Accession of Turkey to the EU: Problematic European or European Problem?', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 10 Issue 2: Featuring the Eramus+ BLASTER Project, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.