By Asad Cabdullahi Mataan


Turkey-EU relations have an extremely long history, in fact a history almost as long as that of the Treaty of Rome the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community in 1957. Turkey first applied to join the European Economic Community in 1959, barely two years after the treaty was signed. This application was made for strategic rather than economic reasons. Turkey was a member of NATO, a much-valued organization at the height of the Cold War, and of other European institutions such as the Council of Europe.  However, its economy was very much less developing than the average of the original six members of the European Economic Community.

For Turkey, and indeed for other Mediterranean countries like Greece, Cyprus and Malta that signed Association Agreements that gave them a perspective of accession, a much longer time frame was envisaged for economic integration. In the case of Turkey, a period of 25 years starting in 1970 was foreseen. Meanwhile, an asymmetric arrangement was put into place whereby the EEC eliminated tariffs on all industrial products imported from Turkey, though it gradually started imposing quotas on imports of textiles and clothing, products in which Turkey had an important competitive edge.

The arrangement foresaw the gradual economic integration of Turkey with the EEC. However, in areas such as agriculture, services, free movement of people etc., it was envisaged that Turkey would gradually align its policies with those of the EEC, so that exchanges would be liberalized and Turkey would be prepared for accession to the EEC.

By the late 1980s, after more efforts done in Turkey to prepare the country for the completion of the Customs Union scheduled for 1995, under the Özel administration.

Özal and his immediate successors had the good sense to accept the scenario. In the end, the job for which twenty-five years had been originally envisaged, namely the alignment of Turkey’s relevant legislation and trade regime on that of the EU, as well as the elimination of tariffs on imports from the EU was completed in just 3-4 years.

In the end, Turkish industry survived and indeed thrived on the Customs Union. These days, much of Turkish industry is fully integrated with its EU counterpart. More than twenty years after its completion, the Customs Union remains in force, despite the fact that it was envisaged as a jumping board for accession which is still very far from happening.  Excepting Andorra and San Marino, Turkey remains today the only non-member country to have a fully functioning Customs Union with the EU.  Indeed, no member of the EU ever had a customs union with it before accession.


The completion of the Customs Union in 1995 coincided with the acceleration of EU enlargement. In the space of about twenty years, the EU moved from a membership of twelve to twenty-seven and then twenty-eight. In the euphoria that followed the completion of the Customs Union in Turkey, it was impossible for Turkey to stand aside from this process.

One of the most important reasons why Turkey is not still accepting as member country of EU is Cyprus issue. The leaders of the EU probably hoped that the perspective of accession would encourage the parties to the Cyprus problem to find a solution to it.  One might argue that a time when multinational states all around were breaking up into their separate national components, it was fruitless to force two communities separated by language, culture and religion to reunite after several decades of separation. The fact is that the international community was then and appears still to be unprepared to accept partition of the island. Half-hearted attempts were made to reach a settlement in parallel to the progress made in the accession negotiations from which the Turkish Cypriots were excluded as the EU recognized the Greek Cypriots government as the only legitimate authority on the island. The Turkish Cypriot leadership of the time was not interested in a settlement on the terms that were available. Turkey was ruled at the time by a disparate coalition only united by mistrust of the West. Prime Minister Ecevit was further weakened by serious health problems. The economy was going through an extremely grave crisis that prevented the government from taking unpopular foreign policy decisions, even if it had wanted to do so. The establishment, namely the military and civilian bureaucracies were opposed to any territorial concessions on the island without which a settlement was and remains impossible.

By the time the government of Mr. Ecevit was replaced by one led by Mr. Erdogan at the end of 2002, the accession negotiations of Cyprus were almost completed. The new Turkish government was prepared to move on Cyprus despite opposition from the establishment that it did not yet control.  However, it was too late. The Annan Plan put to a referendum in April 2004 been ready before the Accession treaty had been finalized, it would have been incorporated into the treaty and the Greek Cypriots would have been unable to reject it, as this would have meant rejection of the Accession Treaty and thereby of membership of the EU.

By 2004, membership of the EU was guaranteed for Cyprus as the treaty was being ratified by existing Member States, a sign of political support for the Greek Cypriot leadership.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, the government of Mr. Erdogan took the perspective of accession to the EU seriously, at least at first.  As the leader of the party that had won the November 2002 elections and despite being prevented from being elected to parliament by a prison sentence that he had served several years earlier, Mr. Erdogan embarked on a lightning tour of the then fifteen members of the EU, an unprecedented initiative. In most countries, he was received with open hands as a dynamic and forward-looking leader.

The new government was therefore encouraged by the sincere welcome it had received in EU countries to proceed on the path of reform and meeting the political criteria needed for accession negotiations to start, it is undeniable that the AKP government in its first years made serious efforts to align on EU standards. It was rewarded with the opening of accession negotiations in 2005, a development that was received with elation by the Turkish nation.  The economy had also recovered from the 2001 crisis, thanks to the fact that the AKP government pursued the structural adjustment reforms introduced during the crisis.

Unfortunately, this honeymoon did not last. As a requirement of the initiation of accession negotiations, the government had had to agree not to discriminate among the members of the EU.  This was a promise that was politically impossible to keep in the absence of a settlement in Cyprus. During the period that had followed the 1974 Turkish intervention on the island, all sorts of restrictions, on trade, maritime and air transport etc, had been imposed on Cyprus. Dismantling them in the absence of an agreed settlement would have been impossible to explain to Turkish public opinion which still felt very strongly about Cyprus.

In the event, making progress in the accession negotiations became increasingly difficult since the opening and closing of chapters required unanimity. Cyprus was able to block progress by vetoing such decisions. Mrs. Merkel was less vocal but equally skeptical. A ‘privileged partnership’ was mooted for Turkey as an alternative to accession.  Because Turkey rejected it out of hand, it has never been possible to ascertain what this partnership might have entailed. It is doubtful that its proponents had given much thought to its possible contents.

Almost twelve years after accession negotiations started, only one chapter has been closed and barely half have been opened. Contrast this with Croatia, which started accession negotiations at the same time as Turkey and has been a member of the Union since July 2013.

It is unlikely that the situation will change in the near future. If anything, it is likely to deteriorate. As the EU has lost its leverage over Turkey with the effective freezing of accession negotiations, Turkey itself has increasingly distanced itself from the EU and the values that it embodies. It is unclear whether the AKP has come to power because the majority of Turks is deeply conservative and devout, or whether Turkish society has become more conservative and devout after almost fifteen years of unprecedented and unbroken rule by a political party that openly espouses religious values. The fact is that is becoming increasingly difficult to argue that Turkey would fit into the EU.


However, the EU and Turkey can’t turn their backs on each other completely.  Apart from an intense economic and trade relationship, the two parties share common interests in the Middle East.  The agreement concluded in March 2016 whereby Turkey would stem the flow of refugees and migrants over its territory into the EU, in exchange for material help, the normalization of relations, including the resumption of accession negotiations, and the lifting of the humiliating and largely redundant visa requirement for Turkish nationals has not been properly implemented.  However, it showed that the two parties had the necessary willpower to address common problems jointly. Despite lack of full implementation of the agreement, the Turkish government has not acted on its threat to reopen its borders to migrants wishing to move on to EU countries.

A more structured relationship is unlikely. Accession negotiations are not going to resume in the near future.  Indeed, it might easily be argued that since the attempted coup of last year, and the crackdown that has followed it, Turkey no longer fulfils the Copenhagen political criteria.  However, acting on such a conclusion would not be meaningful because it would have no impact other than pushing Turkey even further away from the EU, surely not a development in the interest of the Union.

A Cyprus settlement might have had a positive effect by permitting the unblocking of chapters but despite intensive negotiations, it has not been possible to reach it. A majority of people on both sides of the island and the governments of Greece and Turkey appear to be unwilling to make the mutual concessions which a settlement would require. It is likely that pressures in Turkey for annexation of the North will surface if the negotiations are perceived to have broken down irremediably. It is difficult to imagine the EU remaining indifferent to the annexation of part of the territory of one of its member states, partly because of the example that this would set for others. However, it is equally difficult to imagine what sanction the EU could adopt in such an eventuality that would not damage its own interests more than those of Turkey.

Relations with Greece have also started to deteriorate since the EU has lost its leverage over Turkey after the freezing of accession negotiations. Disputes over rocks in the Aegean Sea that had been pushed under the carpet after the initiation of accession negotiations in 2005 have now been resuscitated, perhaps because Greece is seen to be blocking progress in the negotiations over Cyprus. Inflammatory statements are being exchanged like in the bad old days of the 1990s and an accident involving naval vessels or warplanes cannot be excluded.

However, what is also necessary to take into account, is that Turkey’s effluence in the region is increasing day after day. Turkey is getting more and more important for EU countries, Turkey is important for EU in terms of security, human trafficking, workforce, and so many other sectors. Therefore, EU will never allow losing Turkey. On another hand, it is obvious that Turkey needs EU. Turkey needs the membership of EU to have better economic and political stability. So in general, both sides need each other but thing is that no one knows when the time will come.

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