Strategic Europe continues its Capitals Series exploring how EU foreign policy is viewed by major non-European countries. We have asked each of our contributors to give a frank assessment of their country’s relations with the EU and rank five key issues in order of their importance in those relations. This week, the spotlight is on Turkey.


Turkey’s expectations of the EU are undergoing a permanent and structural shift. For long, the overriding objective of Turkey’s relationship with the EU was to achieve membership of this European club. But over the past few years, the credibility of the accession process has been greatly harmed. The rise of populist movements in European politics, coupled with backtracking on democratic standards in Turkey, has brought accession talks to a standstill.

Increasingly, Turkey’s leaders seek to reshape their country’s relationship with the EU away from the goal of accession toward a framework more focused on trade.Under these conditions, it is difficult to contemplate a positive outcome in the foreseeable future. As a result, although the goal of accession remains part of the official discourse, the Turkish leadership is increasingly interested in reshaping the relationship away from the political conditionality inherent in accession toward a framework more focused on trade and economic collaboration.

The deepening of the Turkey-EU Customs Union provides a timely opportunity to advance this objective. The current trade regime dates back to 1995 and needs an overhaul. The main aim will be to extend the scope of the existing customs union, which is limited to manufactured goods and processed agricultural products, by incorporating service industries, agriculture, and public procurement markets. Another aim will be to modernize the agreement’s institutional provisions, particularly its dysfunctional dispute-settlement mechanism.

Ankara is now awaiting EU governments’ approval to start these negotiations. The European Commission sent its formal request for a mandate to negotiate with Turkey to the EU Council of Ministers in the last days of 2016. Decisionmaking in the council has been complicated by political difficulties with Turkey in the wake of a polarizing constitutional referendum in April and the extension of the emergency rule imposed after the July 2016 failed coup.

Increasingly, Turkey’s leaders seek to reshape their country’s relationship with the EU away from the goal of accession toward a framework more focused on trade.The main question that seems to divide EU governments is to what extent the start of this important set of trade negotiations will be made conditional on human rights and democratic norms. It is clear that Ankara wants no political conditionality imposed on these trade talks. The EU, however, seems justifiably unwilling to totally dissociate democratic conditionality from its trade relations with Turkey.

In all likelihood, the EU’s position will not be formalized before the German parliamentary election in September. It will also be interesting to see how the new French president will influence this debate. During his election campaign, while setting out his priorities for the EU’s trade policy, Emmanuel Macron had signaled that he wanted more democratic and inclusive decisionmaking on international trade, taking on board the views of a more diverse set of stakeholders. The Macron view would translate into a more condition-rich mandate for trade policy in general and for a modernized customs union with Turkey in particular.

Beyond trade, maintaining the EU-Turkey refugee deal is another key objective. In March 2016, Turkey made a commitment to stem the flow of illegal migrants to Europe in return for promises of financial assistance, resettlement, and visa liberalization. But the deal remains very fragile. Ankara claims that the EU has not delivered on its myriad of commitments, with the exclusion of the ongoing program of financial assistance. Of particular importance for Turkish policymakers is visa liberalization. Ankara continues to put pressure on the EU for visa freedom and regularly threatens to suspend the refugee deal if visas are not lifted.

But Ankara’s demands are unlikely to be met in the foreseeable future. The EU contends that the domestic political environment in Turkey remains a barrier to any move toward visa liberalization. The European Parliament has also imposed the lifting of emergency rule in Turkey as a precondition for its review of visa liberalization. In the near term, therefore, Ankara and Brussels will have to resort to more diplomatic creativity to prevent the refugee deal from collapsing.

On defense and security, the EU remains an important ally for Turkey. But Ankara’s relationship with the EU’s security and defense pillar has been shaped largely by Turkey’s status as a NATO country with aspirations to remain engaged in European security. For Turkish policymakers, NATO is still the core institution for European security and defense.

This long-standing position has become even more categorical as Turkey’s EU accession prospects have become ever more elusive. Yet, at the same time, Turkish policymakers have witnessed the gradual development of a European security and defense policy. Ankara’s position can therefore be defined as a balancing act that reflects both an instinct to safeguard NATO’s preferential status and a begrudging acceptance of the EU as an actor in European security.

An exception to this superficial cooperation can be found in the area of counterterrorism, where a common perception of the rising threats of violent extremism and the self-proclaimed Islamic State have created a strong collaborative framework among Turkey’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, the EU institutions, and many EU governments.

Finally, on democracy and governance, in contrast to the more recent tendencies of its government, Turkish society remains interested in the potential role of the EU as an anchor to domestic reforms. That is why despite significant obstacles, more than 40 percent of the Turkish people continue to support the goal of EU accession.

Sinan Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.