Turkey says it’s time to upgrade customs union with EU

Turkey says it’s time to upgrade customs union with EU

Recent statements made by senior Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, hint at a growing interest in the revitalization of the overall relationship with the European Union.

Ankara has been observing a new opportunity in terms of developing a sound and genuine bond with the new EU leadership based on mutual understanding and confidence. Reciprocal visits by Erdoğan to Brussels and EU Council President Charles Michel to Ankara along with so many other encounters at different levels between Ankara and Brussels have shown both sides’ willingness to continue engagement.

COVID-19 had its impact on this relationship. Turkey’s donations of medical equipment to nearly 80 countries, including European nations, helped a relative betterment of its image in the continent, as suggested by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

At an online meeting with the members of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEİK) on May 14, Çavuşoğlu stressed, “It was the first time that a lot of positive news appeared in the press about our country. We do not say that everything has been solved with all this, but we can say that there is a positive atmosphere.”

The foreign minister reiterated Ankara’s will to re-energize ties with the EU, singling out visa liberalization, the modernization of the customs union, and upgrading the March 2016 migrant deal. The negative global impacts of the novel coronavirus on the economies have increased the need for visa liberalization for Turkish citizens and entrepreneurs as well as upgrading the customs union, Çavuşoğlu underlined. The post-pandemic world will require more economic interaction between the European and Turkish economies, he added.    

A similar view was also conveyed by Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan at a meeting with the EU ambassadors on March 14. “The process we are in offers us the opportunity to address the concerns of both parties in a spirit of mutual understanding and to harmonize the customs union with today’s realities,” she told EU ambassadors.

Expanding the scope of the customs union with agriculture, trade in services, e-trade, and public procurement would be to both sides’ advantage, she stressed, expressing her hopes for the start of negotiations without delay.

Revisiting the 24-year-old customs union has long been on the two sides’ agenda. In late 2016, the EU commission proposed overhauling the agreement, but the process could not move forward due to speedily deteriorated ties between Ankara and Brussels.

The green light for the start of the negotiations has to come from the EU Council with the consent of all the member countries, and many suggest that Germany’s term presidency in the second half of 2020 will be crucial to this end.

As ministers Çavuşoğlu and Pekcan state, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new atmosphere for a fresh start between the two sides but it’s not enough. Ties with the EU can hardly be upgraded unless Turkey upgrades its democracy, its record of human rights, and its judicial system. Removing elected mayors from office without court decisions, exerting pressure on dissidents, and restricting fundamental freedoms should be abandoned so that Turkey can upgrade its ties with the EU. This is a pre-requisite for a structural and substantial start over.

Serkan Demirtaş,