Concerns over fundamental rights and action in Syria have led to a rethink of EU-Turkey relations. What is the status of the cooperation?
On 10 March, MEPs debated tensions at the Greek-Turkish border after President Recep Erdoğan announced his country would no longer stop migrants and asylum seekers from entering the EU. as it had been doing so since 2016 in exchange for financial aid from the EU. Erdogan’s move followed the escalation of the fighting in the Syrian war.
During the debate, several MEPs said the EU should help Greece manage its border with Turkey, while ensuring the right to asylum for those who need it.
Although this is far from the only time that the Parliament has raised concerns, the EU and Turkey do enjoy close links in many areas.
From trade to Nato, the EU and Turkey have enjoyed a productive relationship in many domains for decades. However, recently relations have turned frosty as concerns mounted over Turkey’s military intervention in Syria, its approach to migration as well as the rule of law and the state of democracy in the country with media outlets being closed and journalists being jailed.
These developments are all the more reason for MEPs to take another look at how the EU and Turkey are working together. Read on for an overview of the state of play on various aspects of EU-Turkey relations.
Since the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, some 3.6 million refugees have entered Turkey and today the country still hosts the largest refugee community in the world.
In March 2016 the EU and Turkey concluded an agreement to tackle the migration crisis, which led to significantly fewer migrants reaching Europe illegally. Read more about the EU’s response to the migration crisis.
Under the agreement all irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands would be returned to Turkey. In exchange the country received EU aid from humanitarian funding of about €6 billion under the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey.
However, in a speech on 28 February, Erdoğan threatened to open the border with Greece again as he did not feel the EU had kept its promises. Following the decision, Greece declared a state of emergency and EU leaders agreed to give the country €700 million in financial assistance as well as provide for a substantial increase in funds for migration and border management in the EU’s budget for 2021-2027.
EU membership: suspension of accession talks?
Turkey has been an associate member of the European Economic Community since 1963 and applied to join in 1987. It was recognised as a candidate for EU membership in 1999, but negotiations didn’t start until 2005. Even after that not much progress was made. Only 16 out of 35 chapters have been opened and only one closed. After The Turkish government’s crackdown following the failed coup d’état on 15 July 2016 negotiations effectively ended and no new chapters have been opened since then.
In November 2016 MEPs adopted a resolution asking for the negotiations to be suspended while repression continues in Turkey. They repeated their call for suspension in a resolution adopted in July 2017 due to continuing concerns about the human rights situation. Although these resolutions are not binding, they send out an important signal.
MEPs regularly debate the situation in the country. For example, In February 2018 they discussed the human rights in Turkey as well as the country’s military operation in Afrin, Syria. That same month they also adopted a resolution calling on Turkey to lift the state of emergency.
Military intervention in Syria
In October 2019, Turkey launched a military operation in northern Syria in order to create a buffer zone between the two countries where Syrian refugees living in Turkey could be moved to. This move was condemned by MEPs during a debate on 23 October. On 24 October they also adopted a resolution in which they called for sanctions against Turkey over its military operation.
Association agreement: an alternative to EU membership?
The EU has the option of concluding association agreements with nearby countries, such as those with Iceland and Tunisia. These agreements set out a framework for close economic and political cooperation.
The EU usually asks for reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country as well as make its economy more robust. In turn the country might benefit from financial or technical assistance, as well as tariff-free access for some or all products.
The EU already has an association agreement with Turkey, but some MEPs see a new agreement as an alternative to EU membership.
Towards closer economic cooperation
In December 2016 the European Commission proposed updating the existing customs union with Turkey and extending bilateral trade relations, but the Council has not yet approved its mandate. Once negotiations have been completed, the agreement would still have to be approved by the Parliament before it could enter into force.
The EU is by far Turkey’s largest export market (50%), while Turkey is the EU’s fifth largest trading partner for both imports and exports.
This article was originally published on 27 April 2017, updated on 11 November 2019 and 13 March 2020.