EU-Turkey customs union: Modernisation or suspension?

Briefing 15-12-2020

Turkey is the EU's fifth largest trading partner, while the EU is Turkey's largest. The association agreement concluded between the European Economic Community (EEC) and Turkey in 1963 was an interim step towards the country's accession to the EEC, membership of which it had applied for in 1959. The EU-Turkey customs union came into force in 1995, and Turkey obtained EU candidate status in 1999. In December 2004, the European Council decided that Turkey qualified for EU accession, making it possible to open negotiations to this end. In 2008, the Council of the EU adopted a revised accession partnership with Turkey. Since 2016, EU-Turkey relations have suffered due to a deterioration of democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law in Turkey, in the wake of a failed military coup. A European Commission recommendation of 21 December 2016 to launch talks with Turkey on modernising the EU-Turkey customs union was halted by the General Affairs Council of 26 June 2018, which concluded that no further work in this direction should be planned. In 2019 and 2020, Turkey's military operations in Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, coupled with its maritime disputes with Greece and Cyprus, further eroded its relations with the EU. Following some positive signs by Turkey, on 1 October 2020 the European Council once again gave a green light to modernising the customs union, provided that constructive efforts to stop illegal activities vis-à-vis Greece and Cyprus were sustained. The European Council also stressed that in case of renewed unilateral actions or provocations in breach of international law, the EU would use 'all the instruments and the options at its disposal', including in accordance with Article 29 of the Treaty on European Union and Article 215 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to defend its interests and those of its Member States. However, in the light of Turkey's recent conduct and given that the EU-Turkey customs union has not been modernised, but not suspended either, the EU could agree on some new sanctions, as called for in the European Parliament's 26 November 2020 resolution on escalating tensions in Varosha.