Yaşar Yakış
Mar 30 2018

Turkey-EU relations dormant in the hope of a future breakthrough

The European Union preferred to call a summit meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker and European Council President Donald Tusk in Bulgaria this week an “encounter of the leaders”. Even so, the meeting still produced the minimum of what both Turkey and the EU were expecting.

Erdoğan, in the run-up to the meeting, tried relentlessly to inform Turkish public opinion and the EU that in Varna he would explain the inconsistencies in the EU attitude towards Turkey by giving concrete examples. Apparently he in fact did just that. And according to the Europeans observers, he did it successfully. Despite this, the EU remained unmoved, because Junker and Tusk cannot go beyond what was agreed beforehand by EU institutions.

Turkey mainly focused its efforts on three issues:

First, the updating of the customs’ union that Turkey signed with the EU in 1996. In the following years the EU signed similar agreements with third countries, but these agreements did not cater for the commitments that the EU had already undertaken towards Turkey. As a result, industrial goods manufactured in these third countries enter the Turkish market without paying customs duties, while goods manufactured in Turkey cannot enter their markets without paying customs’ duties.

The loss caused by this trade diversion on Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product is estimated around $16 billion. The EU acknowledged that this practice was unfair to Turkey and steps were initiated to eliminate it, but the EU is not in a position to redress it in the run-up to European parliament elections and prefers to keep the present ambiguous situation.   

Second is the issue of visa facilitation for Turkish citizens. No progress is achieved in this subject because the EU insists that five out of 72 criteria remain unfulfilled. Among them is the definition of an act of terror in Turkish legislation. Turkey says that in the present circumstances, it cannot go any further.

Thirdly, out of the EU’s commitment to pay 3 billion euros to Turkey for Syrian refugees, only 1.85 billion euros has been paid so far. A group of members of the European Parliament sent a joint letter to EU leaders saying they should refrain from promising Turkey the visa facilitation and updating the Turkey-EU customs’ union agreement.

The points that the EU side raised include the independence of Turkey’s judiciary, the decline in democracy, its human rights records, jailed journalists, its problems with Greece in the Aegean Sea and the unease between Turkey and the Greek Cypriot Administration because of oil and gas exploration.

Turkey is not expected to change its attitude on the Greek Cypriot oil and gas exploration or the Aegean issues. However, on the subjects of democracy, human rights and independence of the judiciary, it has to make efforts if not now, perhaps sometime in the future. Even if it loses hope for the re-activation of the EU accession process, Turkey will have to do it for the sake of raising the standards of its own citizens.

This meeting took place immediately after Turkey completed its military operation in Afrin. Therefore, it was able to project the image of a country that can deliver what it promises in a military operation. Few actors in the Syrian crisis were able to deliver such a clear message. This position gave Turkey an upper hand in Turkey-EU relations in the sense that the EU may play a positive role in the Middle East by cooperating with Turkey.

On the other hand, in an international environment where signs of cold war are weighing heavily, Turkey started to become more aware of the importance of having good relations with as many countries as possible. It is also understood that the EU will not move without making sure that Turkey fulfils all criteria to its full satisfaction.

There was no concrete progress achieved in the summit, but further deterioration seems to have been avoided. In other words, neither side dared to pull the plug on the life support unit, therefore relations may continue with hope for a breakthrough in the future.