During the past fifty years, relations between the European Union and Turkey have known many ups and downs. From an EU standpoint, Turkey has become a strategic country in a host of areas: defense and security; trade, investment, and technology; and education and culture.

Today, Turkey is formally still negotiating its accession to the EU, but developments in the past four years have resulted in multiple incompatibilities with progress toward accession. Although EU leaders have not advocated a breakup in relations, a political alliance through EU membership cannot constitute a serious proposition unless the Turkish leadership reverses its current course toward a one-man-rule system.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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Yet, the recent degradation in the relationship must stop. To this end, the EU and Turkey should contemplate four realistic steps to enhance their relationship in the short and medium term: modernize the EU-Turkey Customs Union; deepen the partnership on asylum and refugees; implement key EU programs to support Turkey’s modernization; and pursue dialogues in areas of mutual interest, including counterterrorism. A window of opportunity exists, but progress will very much depend on the stance the Turkish leadership adopts and the offer EU leaders can agree to make to Turkey.

The Background of EU-Turkey Relations

The Customs Union

When the EU-Turkey Customs Union came into effect on December 31, 1995, it prepared the Turkish manufacturing sector for the country’s full accession to the EU by fostering reforms aimed at higher technical standards and a level economic playing field. The painful adjustment of the manufacturing sector was extremely beneficial: due to new legislation and regulations, Turkey attracted fresh investment and its manufacturing industry was solidly anchored to Europe.

The customs union helped establish a Turkish production base for key EU manufacturing industries. The competitive advantage of European firms in Turkey is rooted not only in the absence of customs duties or wage differentials but also in the innovative capacity of engineers, workers’ flexibility in terms of output, and the workforce’s drive toward excellence and reliability.

However, by virtue of the customs union, Turkey must accept the terms of free-trade agreements negotiated by the EU with third parties, even though Ankara is not associated with the talks. Turkey is raising a legitimate issue here. Some of these accords, for example that between the EU and South Korea, could hamper the Turkish economy in particular by removing any incentive for these third countries to offer trade concessions to Turkey.

In addition, the customs union does not cover key sectors that represent important interests for Turkey, for example agricultural products, or for both sides, for instance service industries such as banking, insurance, retail trade, and road transportation.

Accession Negotiations

The EU agreed to launch accession negotiations with Turkey in December 2004, and talks effectively started in October 2005. An acceding country must absorb the body of EU norms and practices, referred to as the acquis, and abide by the political criteria for membership: free and fair elections, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression, and a free civil society.

Turkey’s negotiations have been protracted for two reasons. First, the EU Council of Ministers and the Republic of Cyprus object to Ankara’s lack of official recognition of the latter, one of the 28 EU member states. Second, in 2007 the then French president objected on principle to Turkish membership on the grounds that Turkey did not belong in Europe. As a result, negotiations on several chapters of the acquis were frozen.

Despite these objections, Turkish ministries and institutions have been keen to absorb EU norms and standards, which they saw as fostering their own modernization process. This process is supported by EU funding under the instrument for pre-accession assistance. The instrument’s current allocation for Turkey is €4.45 billion ($4.98 billion) in grants for the period 2014–2020, or an average of €636 million ($712 million) per year. In addition, lending from the European Investment Bank reached €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion) in 2015 alone, with a focus on support for small and medium-sized enterprises, transportation, the environment, and agriculture.

The March 2016 Agreement on Syrian Refugees

Following negotiations between September 2015 and March 2016, Turkey and the EU reached an agreement to support Syrian refugees in Turkey. In its current stage of implementation, the €3 billion ($3.4 billion) package is the most successful humanitarian aid program in EU history. It has benefited refugees as well as host communities in multiple ways—providing humanitarian assistance, education, healthcare, job training, socioeconomic support, and infrastructure improvements—and at record speed. The EU plans to allocate the entire amount of €3 billion by the end of 2017.

In return, Turkey has been policing its Aegean coast much more efficiently, with arrivals in the EU from the Aegean route dropping drastically from 1,700 a day in February 2016 to 52 a day in February 2017.

Yet, because scolding the EU appears to be a useful populist tactic on Turkey’s domestic scene, the country’s leadership has frequently criticized the agreement and repeatedly threatened to cancel it. However, Syrian refugees know that conditions in Turkey are much better than in Greece and that the Western Balkan migration route is closed. Canceling the agreement would therefore deprive Turkey of a large and successful aid scheme for refugees, most of whom have no plan to move to the EU.

Talks on Visa Liberalization

Negotiations between the EU and Turkey on liberalizing visa arrangements for Turkish citizens traveling to EU countries started in 2013, with Ankara due to fulfill a number of steps. The two sides agreed on some 72 benchmarks at the start of the talks, and to date only seven remain to be met by Turkey. However, the outstanding benchmarks are the most difficult, especially those concerning Turkey’s antiterrorism law, which needs to be revised, according to EU authorities. Ankara has indicated its unwillingness to solve the antiterrorism legislation hurdle in a substantive way, given the state of emergency that was imposed after the failed coup attempt in July 2016, and seems disposed only to offer a calendar for future amendments. It therefore looks like progress on this strand of the EU-Turkey relationship will remain slow for some time.

Access to EU Programs

Turkey benefits from a number of EU programs, the most visible being the student exchange scheme Erasmus+ and the Jean Monnet scholarships—although Ankara blocked the latter in the wake of the failed coup. Turkey is also a member of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and is engaged in the EU-Turkey High-Level Energy Dialogue and an economic dialogue.

The State of Turkey’s Governance

Crumbling Rule of Law

The rule of law in Turkey has deteriorated constantly since the June 2013 Gezi Park protests, a set of civilian demonstrations across the country that the government treated as terrorist acts. Later, in December 2013, corruption allegations were made public, without ever being fully investigated. Yet thousands of police officers, judges, and prosecutors were either dismissed or reallocated to other jobs, and the corruption inquiry was terminated.

Following the August 8, 2014, presidential election, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first directly elected president of the Turkish Republic, Ankara promoted the notion that the country’s constitution, which provided for a parliamentary democracy, should be aligned with the president’s direct election and reflect his prevailing authority.

In the June 7, 2015, legislative election, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the most seats in the parliament but lost its ability to form a single-party government, as it had without interruption since November 2002. The election should have resulted in a coalition government, but talks collapsed. Clashes with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) resumed in July 2015, while the government canceled peace talks that it had initiated three years earlier. The ensuing cycle of violence and repression reached new heights, especially in Turkey’s southeastern provinces, where entire districts of Kurdish towns were destroyed and Kurdish mayors were replaced by government appointees.

A further deterioration occurred after the July 15, 2016, coup attempt. Members of parliament of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were jailed; a massive purge took place in the armed forces, the police, and the judiciary; there were widespread arrests of academics and journalists; a wave of public employees were dismissed; and private assets were confiscated. The purge has continued unabated since.

A Widely Criticized Constitutional Reform

The Turkish leadership’s trend toward significantly reinforcing presidential powers was confirmed by the proposed constitutional reform submitted to a referendum on April 16. During the referendum campaign, the aggressive narrative of Turkey’s leaders toward their EU counterparts truly burned a bridge: when the Turkish president called Europeans “Nazis” and accused them of wanting to “revive the gas chambers,” he used words that are strictly off limits for European governments.

The constitutional reform was approved in the referendum, after the rules on vote counting were amended as voting stations closed. Despite legal objections in the country, Turkey’s leadership now considers the reform final. If implemented, it will mark a shift from an authoritarian democracy to a one-man-rule system with none of the checks and balances expected in a liberal democracy.

Turkey’s constitutional reform has also come under widespread international criticism. On March 10–11, the European Commission for Democracy Through Law, also called the Venice Commission, stated in a report on the draft constitution that the proposed amendments “represent a dangerous step backwards in the constitutional democratic tradition of Turkey,” stressed “the dangers of degeneration of the proposed system towards an authoritarian and personal regime,” and observed that “the current state of emergency does not provide for the due democratic setting for a constitutional referendum.”

The referendum itself was observed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which reported that the vote “took place on an unlevel playing field and the two sides of the campaign did not have equal opportunities. . . . The dismissal or detention of thousands of citizens negatively affected the political environment. One side’s dominance in the coverage and restrictions on the media reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views. . . . Late changes in counting procedures removed an important safeguard and were contested by the opposition.”

On April 25, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly debated and approved a resolution on Turkey’s situation that put the country back on monitoring status. In reference to the post-coup state of emergency, the assembly reported that “unfortunately, eight months after the attempted coup, the situation has deteriorated and measures have gone far beyond what is necessary and proportionate. The authorities have been ruling through decree laws going far beyond what emergency situations require and overstepping the parliament’s legislative competence.”

The 2017 Turkey report adopted by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament on June 20 stressed that “measures taken under the state of emergency had large-scale, disproportionate and long-lasting negative effects on . . . the protection of fundamental freedoms in the country” and condemned “the collective dismissal of civil servants, . . . the mass liquidation of media outlets, the arrests of journalists, academics, judges, human rights defenders, elected and unelected officials, members of the security services and ordinary citizens, and the confiscation of their property, assets and passports.”

After an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Malta on April 28–29, EU Foreign Policy High Representative Federica Mogherini stated, “The accession process continues, it is not suspended, nor ended . . . If Turkey is interested in accession negotiations, it knows very well what [the process] implies, especially in the [fields] of human rights, rule of law, democracy, fundamental freedoms including media freedom, obviously the death penalty, and the respect of international law and the principle of good neighbourly relations.”

This policy line was reiterated at the May 25 meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council President Donald Tusk: it is up to Turkey to decide whether it wants to return to a rule-of-law architecture that allows negotiations with the EU to move forward.

Seen from EU capitals, the Turkish leadership’s preference for a majoritarian system based solely on the direct election of the president is in total contradiction to the EU’s rule-of-law requirements. In such a context, irrespective of some EU member states’ objections to Turkey’s accession on principle, there is a wide gap between the fundamental concepts that underpin the two sides’ respective political systems.

Four Possible Ways Forward

In Turkey, the political spectrum is highly divided and society deeply polarized. A return to EU-compatible democratic standards seems very unlikely in the short or medium term. The temptation of a breakup with the EU is high for some actors on the domestic political scene—by feeding nationalist sentiments, the leadership aims to stamp its power and move its projects forward—but does not make sense in terms of Turkey’s interests in security, trade, and investment.

Assuming their respective political environments offer a suitable opportunity, the EU and Turkey should agree on a priority package of four actions in fields of mutual interest.

Modernize the Customs Union

It is an inescapable fact that the EU represents the lion’s share of trade and tourism flows, foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, and technology inputs into the Turkish economy. With the exception of the energy sector, which is dominated by imports from Russia and Iran as well as Russian investments, no country or region other than the EU has so far emerged as a key partner for Turkey’s exports or FDI inflows. It is therefore essential for Turkey to keep the EU-Turkey Customs Union alive, correct its flaws, and extend its coverage to agriculture and services. For its part, the EU should remedy the inherent unfairness of automatically imposing on Turkey the free-trade agreements that the union concludes with third countries without associating Ankara in the talks.

Inevitably, negotiations on modernizing the customs union will include some degree of technical conditionality, which is already part of the current mechanism. That is because a level playing field will be required for the two partners in domains such as competition policy, public procurement, energy pricing, workers’ rights, and economic justice. This conditionality might be difficult to agree on, in particular because competition and public-procurement policies are political tools for Turkey’s ruling party. Recent political developments make it likely that the EU will also request a degree of political conditionality related to human rights and fundamental freedoms.

On December 21, 2016, the European Commission proposed to the EU Council of Ministers a draft negotiating mandate for modernizing the customs union, stressing that “modernising the Customs Union to reflect current EU-Turkey trade relations would bring substantial economic benefits for both partners.” If the mandate for the customs union’s modernization is handled swiftly in the council, negotiations could start in early 2018. This timeline, however, is itself a political issue. The EU could usefully hold parallel informal consultations with Turkey’s business organizations in the meantime.

Deepen Cooperation on Asylum and Refugees

The tail end of the €3 billion EU-Turkey refugee agreement should be implemented fully, to the benefit of Syrian refugees and host communities in a pacified context. At a political level, it is important that the Turkish leadership’s recurrent threats to forcefully send migrants to the EU should stop. Using the refugee deal as a tool to publicly denigrate the EU runs counter to the nature of the agreement, which reflects the fact that both partners face identical challenges and are dealing jointly with a massive humanitarian issue.

The EU-Turkey program in support of Syrian refugees is a major example of a strategic partnership, as helping refugees prepare for their future benefits both sides. The program also serves the legitimate needs of host communities in Turkey’s southeast. By all accounts, the implementation of the humanitarian part of the agreement is highly satisfactory for all agencies involved. It is important for Brussels and Ankara to reflect this positive reality at the political level.

Cooperation on refugees should include a number of additional elements. The two sides could work together on supporting displaced Syrians inside Syria, assuming the security and political conditions allow for this and that such activities are conducted in a politically neutral fashion. The EU and Turkey should launch a dialogue about refugees’ legal status in Turkey and the extent to which the legal protection of refugees in Turkey can be improved. And Brussels and Ankara should cooperate better on countering the trafficking of human beings by international criminal networks, especially from the Iranian border.

In addition, the EU should decide whether to issue a second tranche of €3 billion of assistance, which was discussed in March 2016, on the basis of a clear understanding of the methods of delivery and the target beneficiaries.

Implement Key Programs, Including on Human Rights

An important pillar of an EU-Turkey package should consist of the steady implementation—free of political influence—of programs that support Turkey’s multisector modernization and people-to-people activities, such as Erasmus+, the Jean Monnet scholarships, civil-society initiatives, and cultural projects. Implementing these programs in full will assume that the EU reaches a political understanding with Ankara about their long-term benefits for Turkey and hence the need to implement them without political motivations.

In addition or in parallel, the EU should use its independent instruments, such the European Endowment for Democracy, to implement autonomous programs on human rights, the rule of law, media freedom, and culture. This assumes that the EU is willing to provide these instruments with financial means commensurate with Turkey’s size.

Foster Dialogues and Counterterrorism Cooperation

Issues of mutual interest between Turkey and the EU call for reinforced dialogue and cooperation between equal partners in a number of fields. This avenue was briefly discussed during the May 25 meeting between Erdoğan, Juncker, and Tusk and was followed by high-level visits both ways in June. Beyond talks on the customs union, refugees, and implementation of programs, the main topics covered should be political dialogue, economic dialogue, the high-level energy dialogue, and Turkey’s participation in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

The important political point is that these dialogues will happen outside the contentious framework of accession negotiations, where the logic is essentially that Turkey must align itself with EU norms. Even when Turkey’s genuine self-interest is to adopt and implement EU rules and standards in a given sector or policy, the one-way logic of the accession process might not always be the most propitious format to achieve such a result. Broader dialogues, by contrast, replace the logic of Turkey’s alignment with EU norms and standards with the rationale of a conversation between equal partners. However, politically, these dialogues should not be construed as a way for Turkey to evade any discussion with the EU on the rule of law. This would run counter to the views of most parliaments in the EU.

In addition, consultations on counterterrorism should be reinforced with the EU counterterrorism coordinator and interested member states, because Turkey and EU countries are facing the same threats from the self-proclaimed Islamic State and similar groups. Also at issue will be the activities of the PKK in Europe, which rank high on the Turkish agenda with the EU.

The Wider Political Context

From a European political perspective, the steps suggested above constitute the most favorable and realistic avenues at this stage. For such a package to move forward, it will be crucial to create the proper political atmosphere. Symbolic measures would go a long way to ease tensions. Ankara should consider freeing the democratically elected HDP members of parliament, journalists, and academics currently being held pending trial, often without documented charges or access to lawyers. (Two writers were recently released.) A clear statement at the political level to renounce any attempt to bring back the death penalty, an idea repeatedly floated by Turkey’s president, would also signal a political will to start a rapprochement with Europe.

It is doubtful whether the Turkish leadership can take such steps in the current domestic political context. Yet, they would be critical to restore Europeans’ trust in Turkey’s intentions for the future.

Concerning the accession negotiations themselves, the EU’s clear and principled position will not change: membership remains open under the preexisting conditions, so a tangible and measurable return by Turkey to a rule-of-law architecture compatible with EU standards would be necessary to rekindle the accession dynamics.

From a wider perspective, the development of EU-Turkey relations in the short and medium term is not entirely independent from other events in the diplomatic arena. Turkey is at odds with the United States and Germany on various aspects of the operations of the anti–Islamic State coalition. A pacified relationship with the EU would benefit from less hostile language and a more cooperative attitude from Ankara.

Similarly, if the much-touted deal for Turkey to purchase Russian S-400 air-defense missiles were to become a reality, it would mean that Russia would have placed a major weapons system at the core of Turkey’s defense architecture—a diplomatic achievement for Moscow given the size of the Turkish Armed Forces in NATO. The decision to install state-of-the-art Russian missiles in Turkey, even as a standalone system, would be unprecedented. While the freedom of each NATO country to choose its own military hardware is undisputed, the European perception of such a deal would inevitably be that Turkey is acting in favor of Russia’s anti-NATO and anti-EU objectives. Such a development would not be taken lightly in European capitals.

Finally, the Brexit negotiations and the UK’s future position vis-à-vis the EU in terms of trade—on questions such as access to the EU single market and customs union—may have an influence on the future shape of relations between the EU and Turkey. Carnegie’s Sinan Ülgen has made an argument for forging a Turkey-UK partnership on this subject.


For its own domestic motives, the Turkish leadership has chosen a path on issues such the constitution, secularism, societal questions, and foreign policy that is leading Turkey away from the European standards it had long fought to adopt. The method used to implement these changes has proved less and less democratic.

The debate on whether the choices that are leading to an autocratic political system are best for Turkey belongs squarely to Turkish citizens—assuming they can vote freely—not to foreign observers. But it is clear that the Turkish leadership’s political orientations are resulting in a reduced format for relations with the EU in the short and medium term.

The EU-Turkey relationship will in any event remain strategic in many respects. Implementing the four components outlined above to enhance that relationship should be the most pressing priority for both sides. For such a package to be agreed on, a calmer political narrative from Ankara would help restore EU leaders’ trust.

In the longer run, the bases for a deeper political alliance through EU membership remain as they have always been. It will be up to Turkey’s leaders, at some point in the future, to return to their earlier ambitions.