EU-Turkey: anatomy of a difficult relationship 


“Unacceptable.” President Antonio Tajani was clear this week in his condemnation of Turkey accusing Germany and the Netherlands of Nazi methods for preventing Turkish ministers from campaigning in their countries in favour of a referendum to give the president additional powers. Although the EU and Turkey cooperate on anything from trade to migration, relations have become strained in recent year. Read on for an overview of the current state of affairs.

Turkey has  hit out at Germany and the Netherlands for not allowing a campaign on the referendum. Parliament President Antonio Tajani tweeted on Monday: “It is unacceptable that the President of Turkey referred to Nazism in relation to a democratic country. Germany fully guarantees all fundamental freedoms and with these comments, Erdogan offends all Europeans.”

EU membership

Turkey has been  a candidate since 1999, but last November MEPs adopted a resolution asking for the negotiations to be temporarily suspended while repression continues in Turkey: “Turkey is not showing this political will as the government’s actions are further diverting Turkey from its European path.”

During  a plenary debate in March 2017, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian leader of the Alde group,  accused Turkey's President Erdoğan of cynicism for advocating "freedom of speech" while journalists are imprisoned in Turkey. "Let's freeze the negotiations on Turkey's accession now, this is the only thing we can do now."

MEPs are concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation. The foreign affairs committee went on a fact-finding mission to Turkey last August. Elmar Brok, who was chair at the time, said developments have taken Turkey farther away from the EU.” MEPs have also debated the situation in Turkey in plenary on several occasions.


In March 2016 the EU and Turkey concluded an agreement to tackle the migration crisis. The deal led to significantly fewer migrants reaching Europe illegally, however Turkey has threatened several times to suspend it, accusing the EU of not living up to its commitments.

MEPs have criticised several aspects of the agreements. During a meeting of the civil liberties committee in January Dutch EPP member Jeroen Lenaers said: “If we want to get it to work we need to make sure the conditions for hosting refugees are much better."


The EU is by far Turkey’s largest export market (44.5%), while Turkey is the EU’s fourth largest export market (4.4%). Last December the European Commission proposed updating the customs union with Turkey and extending bilateral trade relations.  Once negotiations have been completed, the agreement would still have to be approved by the Parliament before it could enter into force.

MEPs will discuss the state of play in Turkey, in particular the upcoming referendum, during the April plenary in Strasbourg.