New EU customs union deal with Turkey would play into Erdoğan’s hands

*Joseph Jacob

The European Union and its member states for many years have debated opening talks with Turkey on two of the so-called chapters Ankara needs to pass to enter the bloc – Chapter 23 concerning judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 24 on justice, freedom and security.

The talks, it was argued, would anchor Ankara to improving its performance regarding democracy and rule of law.

But now it is no longer on the agenda of any EU body.

The European Parliament even passed a resolution in July last year that called on the EU Commission and Council to suspend membership talks with Ankara. Another resolution followed in November 2017.

The message was clear: 'Get back on the road to democracy and human rights'.

In fact, the parliament was not first to raise such criticism and voice its deep concern.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution in April 2017 that underlined that Turkey had fallen behind were it had been in 2004 in terms of meeting the Copenhagen Criteria necessary for entering the EU. That took Turkey back to monitoring status after 13 years, the first example of a country making such a backward step.

The EU decided in 2004 to open accession talks with Turkey based on a PACE decision that said Turkey had met the basic criteria on human rights and democracy. Thus, it would not be wrong to say that the current Turkish government had deprived the country of its candidate status for full membership to the EU.

In response to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule by decree under the ongoing state of emergency, the European parliament in November cut 85 percent of pre-accession financial assistance to be transferred to the Turkish government. 

This cut amounts to only €105 million ($135 million) in total. 

But in early December, Christian Berger, the head of the EU permanent delegation to Turkey, said the bloc was working on the renewal and deepening of its customs union with Turkey based on the mandate given to the European Commission in December 2016. That statement was endorsed by Natalie Tocci, the special advisor to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, even though it is at odds with the resolution of the European Parliament.

Tocci and Berger as well as some Turkish researchers in Brussels said deepening claim that such an effort would open new horizons of mutual benefit for Turkey and the EU.

  • The first benefit, they said, is to be expected in the economic area. But a 2016 study prepared for the European Commission said the benefit of such an agreement to Turkey would be €12.5 billion, or 1.44 percent of its GDP. The benefit for EU countries would be 5.4 billion euros, only about 0.01 percent of the EU's GDP.
  • The second benefit argued by the supporters of a renewed customs union is that it would contribute to the rule of law in Turkey. However, the only legal measures to be put in place for such a renewal are "dispute resolution in trade relations" and "public tender issues". By that measure, China could be considered a democracy governed by the rule of law.

In December, Turkey’s government issued decree 696, putting the final nail in the coffin of the rule of law. The decree grants immunity from prosecution to civilians who helped thwart the 2016 failed coup attempt, and also appears to grant immunity to those who take action against what is deemed to be terrorist activity in the future. The provision thus gives pro-government groups impunity to act as they please.

Though any Turkish leader would be wise to try to upgrade the customs union agreement, which was poorly negotiated by the Turkish side in 1995, the government will find it hard considering the lack of free media and economic transparency.

Erdoğan would certainly use an upgrade to the customs union to boost his chances in presidential elections next year.

Upgrading and expanding the customs union with Turkey would undermine and contradict the European Parliament’s resolutions and send the wrong signal to the Erdoğan government.

It is no secret that Turkey’s EU bid is one of the issues under discussion listed in a draft German coalition agreement. Underlining that issues of democracy, the rule of law and human rights have increased, the document foresees neither the opening of new accession chapters for negotiation, nor the concluding of previously opened ones.

But what is important in the document is that is says there will be no visa liberalisation, nor any update to the customs union as long as Turkey does not meet its obligations to the EU.

If only all those inside the EU were as frank as Germany’s leaders.

*Joseph Jacob is the pseudonym for an expert who has worked on Turkey–EU economic relations and the customs union within the European Union for many years.

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