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Toward a “Privileged Partnership”: The EU, Turkey and the Upgrade of the Customs Union

Over the past few years, Turkey’s EU membership prospects have further deteriorated amid intensive political crisis between Brussels and Ankara. The Turkish government and the European Commission have agreed to upgrade the two-decade-old Customs Union between Turkey and the EU, with negotiations likely to begin in 2018. This paper explores the European Commission’s CU upgrade scenarios in tandem with European proposals to form a “Privileged Partnership” between the two parties as an alternative to Turkey’s membership in the Union. An upgraded agreement would be a significant step toward Privileged Partnership, maximizing Europeans’ political and economic benefits from Turkey and eroding any remaining motives for the EU to welcome Turkey as a full member.

Toward a Privileged Partnership The EU Turkey and the Upgrade
Volkan Bozkır, then Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator, and Nihat Zeybekci, then Minister of Economy, signed the “Protocol on Common Position and Cooperation in Turkey’s EU Accession and Customs Union Processes” in October 2014. FATİH AKTAŞ / A

Introduction

The origins of today’s EU-Turkey partnership go back to the early years of the 1960s. An Association Agreement dated 1963 paved the way for forming a bilateral Customs Union (CU) that has been in force since 1996. Turkey earned candidacy status for EU membership in 1999, and its accession negotiations began in 2005. Nevertheless, so far Ankara has made only limited progress toward membership owing to mounting political hurdles on both sides. The negotiations have been effectively stalled in recent years amid the biggest political crisis in bilateral relations. Rising populist nationalism in Western Europe, the Brexit decision, and increasingly unified resistance to Turkey’s accession within the EU have made Turkey’s full membership an impossible scenario.

Although proponents of Turkey’s EU membership both in Europe and Turkey have long lost faith in a happy ending, neither Ankara nor Brussels is ready to terminate the accession process and work out a mutually non-destructive Plan B. In their October 2017 summit in Brussels, the EU leaders produced a decision, at the end of hours of heated debate, that limits structural aid for Turkey’s accession owing to persisting concerns about the conditions of democracy and human rights in the country.1 The European Commission’s latest progress report on Turkey’s accession contends that Ankara fails to meet not only political criteria for being in the EU but also increasingly falls short of maintaining its market economy. Even though a decision that would officially cut off the accession talks has so far been evaded, the policy debate will certainly intensify in European capitals toward constructing a viable exit strategy that would officially terminate the membership process but keep Turkey anchored to Europe. This time the proponents of the idea of a “Privileged Partnership” with Turkey will shape the policy debates in Europe, rather than those who back Turkey’s membership bid. Upgrading the CU is central to the Privileged Partnership proposals.

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Call for Paper | Politics of the Balkans and Future Perspectives