(Very) small steps in Turkey-EU relations

Leaders of the EU-member countries are seen during the roundtable meeting at the summit on June 24. (Photo: European Council).

Relations with Turkey were discussed at the June 24 session of the European Council in accordance with the March European Council Conclusions of the European Union, but judging by the results, very little headway was made. We know that perspectives do not change easily, but while the world is rapidly moving, governments continue to lag behind in this regard.

While expressing satisfaction with the decrease in tension in the Eastern Mediterranean, the EU noted that they expect this to be sustained within the scope of the previous Summit results. The Conclusions also repeat that relations with Turkey will be carried out in a “phased, proportionate and reversible manner.” According to the results of the Summit, migration, public health, climate, combating terrorism and regional issues are chosen as high-level dialogue areas where relations can be developed. Furthermore “it takes note of the start of work at technical level towards a mandate for the modernization of the EU-Turkey Customs Union and recalls the need to address current difficulties in the implementation of the Customs Union”.  On the other hand, the EU announced that a new financial package will be prepared for Turkey along with Lebanon and Jordan for Syrian immigrants. Finally, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen yesterday announced that €3 billion will be transferred by 2024. We can consider these as positive but very small steps.

As always, the European Council Conclusions refer to the Cyprus issue in the usual manner. Concerns about fundamental rights and the rule of law in Turkey are emphasized in the last section. Finally the European Council “expects Turkey to contribute positively to the resolution of regional crises”.

Customs Union becomes focal point

As stated in our Global Relations Forum report entitled “Roadmap for Turkey – European Union Relations,” the main issue that the two sides can work together in the current period is the Customs Union. The problems here are twofold. On the one hand, the existing issues stemming from the functioning of the Customs Union need to be resolved, and on the other hand, the modernization of the Customs Union is in question. Unfortunately, the EU imposed certain conditions on any development concerning the Customs Union. However, there are no prerequisites regarding the Customs Union in the 18 March 2016 agreement. A purely commercial and economic deal that will benefit both sides could fall victim to politics. First, the EU emphasized that there would be no progress in this area by claiming the steps taken after the July 15 coup attempt by Turkey restricted fundamental rights and freedoms and undermined the rule of law, and later on the EU announced that there would be no movement due to the activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Now the EU is “rewarding” Turkey for not taking any “negative action” in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Of course, apart from these, the fact that Turkey does not apply the Customs Union to all EU members is another hindering factor. As a matter of fact, the Conclusions emphasize once again the need for “ensuring its effective application to all Member States”. In other words, the EU requires that the Customs Union apply to Greek Cyprus. Otherwise, even if the technical negotiations are completed, no progress should be expected if steps are not taken in this regard. We also touch upon this in our report, and we suggest Turkey should focus on reviewing whether the Customs Union could be applied (without recognition) to Greek Cyprus. Because the expectation of the EU is that Turkey will not fulfil this condition, such a move will allow progress in important areas.

If the Customs Union is extended to all members of the EU without any discrimination, and if the softening in foreign policy continues, the basic reasons preventing the Customs Union from being updated will also be removed. Thus, it will be possible for Turkey to expect the EU Council to swiftly give the Commission the mandate to negotiate the modernization of the Customs Union in the areas specified in the Road Map adopted in 2015, as well as to include “Green Deal” and “Digital Economy.”

In the meantime, taking steps to eliminate some of the existing problems arising from Turkey in the Customs Union that have not been resolved for years will also serve to create a suitable environment for the process to start. Likewise, a solution-oriented approach to the problems arising from the EU in the implementation of the Customs Union and which have not been overcome for a long time (such as the limitation towards Turkish trucks due to quotas in EU countries) are important steps to build confidence.

Restarting accession negotiations

The extension of the Customs Union to Greek Cyprus will also eliminate the justification of the Council’s 2006 decision of blocking eight chapters, thus opening the way to restart accession negotiations.

First of all, the opening of chapters 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) and 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security), which are among the chapters that the Greek Cypriots single-handedly blocked in 2009 may be envisaged. The EU constantly criticizes Turkey for human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. It even uses these criticisms as an excuse for not fulfilling its commitments in some areas. If one of these chapters were to be opened, progress would be possible and at least Turkey’s sincerity would be verified. From time to time, incorrect information appears in the EU that Turkey does not want these chapters to be opened, thus, creating a negative perception. In fact, Turkey has been demanding the opening of these chapters from the very beginning

What the Council conclusions omitted

Unfortunately, we see that certain basic issues continue to be omitted in the Council Conclusions. Turkey is still not mentioned as a candidate country. The essential point as we emphasized in our Report which is disturbing, is that Turkey is clearly seen less as a candidate than as a third country. If this approach continues, there is a danger that the situation will become entrenched, and relations will move in an undesirable direction that will harm the common interests of both parties.

If the aim is to improve relations, this can be done only if both parties take similar steps. Not only Turkey, but also the EU should move forward. For example, the Council Conclusions do not even mention the implementation of the Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme, which was included in the March 18 agreement and remains unfulfilled. The EU continues to push it under the rug while emphasizing its own priorities in the agreement. Turkey should remind the EU of its promises on every occasion.

While mentioning de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean, it should not remain one-sided. If there is no provocation, there will be no tension.

The way forward

The message taken from the Council Conclusions is that the EU is not sure whether Turkey’s recent détente in its foreign policy will continue. Nevertheless, compared to a year ago, albeit incomplete and inadequate these small steps should be viewed positively. It is also evident how much ground we have lost in the last five years. As we said at the beginning, there are rapid changes on a global scale and the EU and Turkey need to keep up with them. It is time for both sides to change their perspectives towards each other and take bolder steps. Increased dialogue at all levels and joint action by the EU and Turkey will contribute to dealing with the growing centers of power as well as issues that defy borders. It should not be forgotten that the future of Europe belongs to both sides.


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