• Trade and economic relations remain the cornerstone of EU-Turkey relations.
  • The Customs Union (CU) is the sole institutionalized instrument that remains important for both sides.
  • Launching negotiations on how to update its content offers a set of fresh opportunities for the EU to reintroduce political as well as economic conditionality in its relations with Turkey.
  • A step-by-step approach based on monitoring and benchmarking can enhance EU leverage vis á vis Turkey and allow the EU to escape a cycle of ineffective policy interventions on Turkey’s political trajectory.
  • The CU can also become a vehicle to assist the democratic segments of Turkey’s civil society as well as those EU member states who have found themselves searching for an alternative to Turkey’s failed Europeanization.

You may find here in pdf the Policy Paper by Dimitris Tsarouhas, Associate Professor, Bilkent University; Professorial Lecturer, George Washington University; Visiting Researcher, BMW Center for German and European Studies, Georgetown University; Senior Non-Resident Fellow, Turkey Programme, ELIAMEP.


Turkey’s relations with the European Union (EU) have sharply deteriorated in recent years. With the possible (but only partial) exception of migration policy, there is hardly a policy area where Ankara and Brussels see eye to eye. Domestic political developments in Turkey since the attempted coup of 2016, if not earlier, have effectively blocked Ankara’s path towards EU membership. For the Union, Turkey is an increasingly awkward, distrusted partner: vocal in its criticism of EU policy for years, Turkey is perceived as an increasingly authoritarian polity at war with itself and multiple states in its neighbourhood and beyond. Crucially, the leverage that the Union once held over Turkish politics has now been hollowed out, reducing bilateral relations to a list of transactional clearing items that further recycles wariness and disappointment.

Enduring political tensions notwithstanding, Turkey and the EU now rely on economic relations to maintain open communication channels and benefit from each other’s presence. The signing of the Customs Union (CU) between the two sides in 1995 has been a decisive event in that it enhanced the competitive ability of Turkish firms and paved the way for enhanced trade relations for decades to come. There has also been an often neglected but salient political dimension to the CU. Turkey remains the only non-EU member with such an agreement in place, and the attempt to portray the successful conclusion of the CU negotiations in the 1990s with the prospect of Ankara’s EU membership was instrumental in fostering, over time, the political environment that turned Turkey into an official EU candidate country in 1999.

More than 25 years after the signing of the CU, and given a political context marred by distrust and acrimony, how have economic relations between Turkey and Europe developed? Further, to what extent does the recent debate on upgrading the Customs Union reflect a realistic path forward in improving bilateral relations, and under what conditions would such a path be advisable? This paper engages with the above questions and starts off by demonstrating the robustness of economic partnership established between Ankara and important EU member states. It then goes on to discuss the various parameters linked to a CU modernization before evaluating the state of play.

“…a positive or negative decision on CU modernization depends on the willingness of Brussels to engage with the Turkey question from a strategic rather than tactical, point of view.”

The paper’s main argument is that a positive or negative decision on CU modernization depends on the willingness of Brussels to engage with “the Turkey question” from a strategic, rather than tactical, point of view. The current state of affairs may be low cost for EU governments but contributes nothing to the ostensible goal of maintaining Turkey within the orbit of reliable partners that share the oft-cited EU “values” and act upon them. Turkey’s Europeanization momentum is long gone and the costs have been diffused, hitting democratic voices within Turkey itself the hardest, but also causing considerable damage to Brussels’ aspirations of playing a political role in its near abroad. A rules-based, step-by-step approach enabling the potential modernization of the Customs Union can have significant spill over effects in the political realm and allow for the healthy normalization of bilateral relations along the pronounced goals of the EU and its member states.

Aggregate volume over time of EU-Turkey bilateral trade and financial services

EU-Turkey trade over the last decade

A cursory look at bilateral trade volumes between the two sides over the last decade leaves little doubt as to the salience of their economic partnership. Figure 1 and Graph 1 below point to the fact that both imports and exports for Turkey and the EU respectively have met with an uneven yet increasing trend throughout the period, totaling €1.3 trillion. Increasing trade occurred during a turbulent period of deteriorating political relations between the two sides. What is more, the growing trend of bilateral trade confirmed not only the significance of Europe for Turkey’s exports but also the failure of erstwhile attempts by Ankara to use commercial opportunities elsewhere and pluralize its economic partnerships with countries in the MENA region in particular. Such a diversification argument had become especially pronounced following the outbreak of the Arab Spring and as Turkey’s willingness to conform to standards, rules and principles set by the West in general, and the EU in particular, started to decline.

Figure 1


Chart 1

Source: https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/isdb_results/factsheets/country/details_turkey_en.pdf

For Turkey, Europe constitutes a safe haven where the gains made by economic modernization can be reaped and the productive capacities of Turkey’s private sector be put to use. Chart 5 demonstrates that this is true not merely for goods but increasingly for services too, as Turkey continues to reap the long-term benefits of CU membership. Further, the latest year for which data is available (2019, Charts 2-4) demonstrates that Turkey’s trade ties with EU member states are especially dense with reference to a core group of states, namely Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Belgium and the Netherlands form their own second tier, while the United Kingdom constitutes a major export destination for Turkish goods following Brexit.

Chart 2: EU Exports to Turkey, 2019

Chart 3: EU-27 Imports from Turkey, 2019


Chart 4: Turkey’s Top Trading Partners 2019


 Chart 5: EU-Turkey: Trade in Goods 2017-2019, € billions


Year EU imports EU exports Balance
2017 61.4 76.7 15.3
2018 66.8 69.2 2.4
2019 69.8 68.3 -1.5

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/turkey/

Chart 6: EU-Turkey: Trade in Services 2016-2018, € billions


Year EU imports EU exports Balance
2016 11.9 10.8 -1.2
2017 12.0 10.7 -1.2
2018 12.9 11.2 -1.6

Source: https://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/countries-and-regions/countries/turkey/


More than just numbers: Turkey’s deep engagement with EU member states

“Certain member states have deepened relations with Turkey in ways that go beyond one-on-one trade volumes.”

The high level of economic interaction between the two sides is obvious by looking at aggregate data. Yet there is a more important, qualitative dimension in EU-Turkey economic relations. Certain member states have deepened relations with Turkey in ways that go beyond one-on-one trade volumes. Germany is an obvious example, not least because of the long-lasting people-to-people relations that the two countries have cultivated over the years, not least through the sizable Turkish community living in Germany. Partly as a result, economic interaction has acquired a high level of sophistication. To illustrate by use of the clearest example, more than 7500 German firms are present in the Turkish market through equity participation. Moreover, Germany exports mostly capital goods, and not consumer goods, to Turkey. This feeds into Turkey’s growing export capacity, since such goods move into the industrial production chain that Turkey has been building up for some time, especially in sectors such as textiles and the automotive industry. There is therefore a qualitative side to economic relations between Turkey and certain EU member states that often lies under the surface but needs to be considered from a long-term, decision making perspective.

A second, suitable example is Italy. Rome is not only Turkey’s second largest trade partner in the European Union. The two countries also share a strategic interest in using their geographic location to set up “an arc of commercial connectivity from the Maghreb to the Black Sea”. In the process, Ankara and Rome have not merely come closer in economic and trade terms; they have sought to iron out differences in the Eastern Mediterranean for instance, despite Rome’s support for the positions of Greece and Cyprus respectively. It is far from accidental that Rome backed the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya, with which Turkey proceeded to sign a maritime agreement. What is more, the partnership between the two sides extends to their effort to pull in hub states such as Tunisia and Malta, another EU member state. Doing so would offer strategic depth to the two countries’ interrelations, as a vast area covering the MENA extending through Italy to the industrial centers of western Europe can be constructed.

Turkey’s Economic Transformation: success and crises

The Ankara Agreement of 1963 set the tone for relations between the two sides over subsequent decades. Although Turkey’s EU membership aspirations have not been realized, and crises have been (and remain) a stable feature of Turkish political economy, the transformation of the Turkish economy over time is remarkable. Back in the 1960s, Ankara could do little but plead for consideration and use its geographic location (and size) as a potential market for EU products. A fundamentally agrarian economy characterized by low education skills and small urbanization levels, Turkey relied on imports and Cold War geopolitics to advance on the list of desirable investment destinations.

“In 1995, the signing of the Customs Union proved a watershed moment for Turkey.”

 In 1995, the signing of the Customs Union proved a watershed moment for Turkey. The CU created a more competitive economic environment and Turkish firms were initially reluctant to change their ways and adjust to the new reality. European support proved crucial in overcoming the early hesitation, and the results have been dramatic. Turkey’s industrial capacity has been uplifted and approximately one in four white goods currently consumed in Europe is made in Turkey. A largely urban polity, Turkey has grown exponentially in the early 2000s, raising living standards as well as popular expectations that such growth would continue. Some indicative statistics are in order. After the 2001 crisis and following macroeconomic and regulatory reforms overseen by the IMF and sponsored by its political class, Turkey raised its GDP per capita from $3,115 in 2001 to $7,924 in 2020. Poverty declined, the middle class became substantially larger and with a life expectancy of 77.9 years in 2020, Turkey prides itself in raising living standards beyond what had been deemed possible back in 1995.

Yet the last twenty-five years have been far from a uniform story of economic success. Political turmoil in recent years has eventually translated in stagnation and a deepening economic crisis. 2018 was a particularly turbulent year, as the country faced a currency crisis and the Turkish lira shed more than one third of its value vis á vis the US dollar. That crisis was at least partly political, due to Ankara’s strained relations with the US and others, but it also resulted from a set of unorthodox monetary policies, such as blaming high inflation rates on high interest rates instead of vice versa. Moreover, Turkey has abandoned its reformist path, and the undermining of independent regulatory institutions set up in the aftermath of the 2001 crisis has further darkened its horizon. A crisis dynamic similar to 2018 is unfolding, as these lines are written. The decision by President Erdoğan to replace the Central Bank Governor yet again, not least because of his orthodox monetary policy moves that had reassured markets, underlines the fragility of Turkey’s overall economic position and the premium it places on securing favorable terms of trade with Europe and western markets more generally.

Modernizing the Customs Union I: basic facts

Turkey’s relations with the EU have been deteriorating for some time and attempts to counter that dynamic have proven fruitless. The launch of the ‘Positive Agenda’ in 2012 by the European Commission and Turkey was meant to reinvigorate stalled negotiations and keep Turkey on track with legislative alignment and enhanced cooperation. Subsequent developments in Turkey as well as the EU, not least the cycle of successive crises the two sides entered, hollowed out the process. The 2015-16 migration and refugee crisis led to a temporary uplift in bilateral relations, not least due to EU desperation to remove the question of migration from press headlines and reassure its population that things remain under control. What has emerged is a transactional relationship with an ostensible candidate country based less on partnership and more on mutual, if short-term and haphazard, gain. In the last year, Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean have complicated relations further still, with Greece and Cyprus, joined by other EU member states, calling for sanctions on Ankara to counter its unilateral demonstration of force in the region and its disregard for EU policy positions.

“Economic relations is the only policy area where Turkey and the EU are committed to strengthening their cooperation.”

Throughout the last 15 years, it is solely the flow of goods, services and finance that preserves structural characteristics in EU-Turkey relations. Economic relations is the only policy area where Turkey and the EU not only see eye to eye regarding the evolution of their relations; they are also committed to further institutionalizing their cooperation and expanding on the mechanisms and instruments at their disposal to make the process work. Moreover, and for all of the frequent policy reversals that Turkey has embarked on, its desire to become a “trading state” and build on improving trade and economic relations with others has remained unchanged. This offers leverage to those willing to use it.

Modernizing the Customs Union has been a policy item on the agenda for some time. As discussed earlier, Turkey’s economy has changed irrevocably since the mid-1990s. The limitations of the CU are clear, not least in its applicability to industrial products, which leaves agriculture, services, public procurement and state aid outside of its scope. The latter is especially important, considering the salience of government procurement for the EU economy, and the multiple ways through which the exclusion of Turkish firms from open tenders and meritocratic selection criteria for government contracts clouds transparency and accountability on the part of the Turkish state. A second limitation, again reflecting the fundamental changes that have occurred since its signing, is the series of Free Trade Agreements the Union has signed with major economies, such as South Korea, Australia and Japan. Turkey is bound to those agreements through the CU and the Common Commercial Policy, yet has little say, save for consultations with the EU, on the final shape of those FTAs that directly affect it.

In 2016 the Commission recommended to the Council the opening of negotiations with Ankara to upgrade the CU and include sectors such as services and procurement in the new framework. This followed the expressed willingness by Turkey to go down the path of modernizing the CU rather than rely on its replacement with a new instrument the EU has used with neighbors, such as a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). The Commission also delivered an Impact Assessment Report on what such an upgrade could look like, and its consequences for both sides by use of different baseline scenarios. There is little doubt that, from an economic point of view, a revamped CU would be mutually beneficial though not to the same degree. According to calculations made five years ago, the aggregate increase in bilateral export volumes would exceed €27 billion for the Union and approximately €5 billion for Turkey. On the other hand, the metric that matters more is the expected welfare gain resulting from modernized relations. On that front, Turkey’s 1.4% real GDP growth stands out, whereas for the Union gains are negligible (0.04%). Following the Commission report, subsequent studies have been published and the figures vary, in some cases pointing to a potential net 2.5% GDP growth for Turkey or slightly higher gains for the EU as well, depending on the extent to which financial services, FDI flows and agricultural products will cease to be subject to restrictions. In that sense, a crucial question is the extent to which an upgraded CU entails the removal of the main obstacle to deeper ties, namely non-tariff barriers to trade (NTBs), which would provide a platform for further expanding the competitiveness of Turkish firms.

Modernizing the Customs Union II: a path forward

Limiting the prospects of a modernized CU to the technical level and the expected economic benefits was never realistic. Political developments in Turkey and the EU have inevitably colored the debate and developments in Turkey since the failed coup attempt of 2016 have put serious CU negotiations on ice. In 2018 the European Council stressed that there will be no progress in this area, nor in negotiating accession chapters with Turkey, unless Ankara engages seriously with reforms to democratize its governance structures, to uphold the rule of law and to promote good neighborly relations. The country was made a candidate country and accession negotiations began on that basis, the argument goes. Launching such talks at a time of serious deterioration in Turkey would be perceived as giving in to Turkey’s demands and harm the Union’s credibility.

There are objective obstacles to a modernized Customs Union, and some of those arguments carry special weight. To start with, Turkey’s drift towards authoritarianism has gathered pace in recent years and the Union has found itself on the defensive when dealing with Ankara on more than one occasion. Modernizing the CU can thus look like an attempt to placate the Turkish leadership, sending the wrong signal at the wrong time. Second, the EU is unwilling to engage in talks on the issue out of fatigue and constant crisis management over the last few years. The pandemic, and its deep-seated consequences yet to be fully revealed, makes overtures on the Turkey question more difficult. Finally, a third set of argument focuses on the limited overall effectiveness that such an instrument can have: conditionality has not worked and the limits to a “Europeanization with no substance” have by now been revealed. There is little reason to believe, the argument goes, that revamping the Customs Union will change that dynamic.

“Modernizing the Customs Union by use of specific benchmarks and a step-by-step approach […] offers the best alternative to the current state of affairs.”

Nevertheless, modernizing the Customs Union by use of specific benchmarks and a step-by-step approach is a path the EU can now explore. It offers the best alternative to the current state of affairs and, given Turkey’s stake in making the new arrangement work, offers the Union the tools to monitor compliance.

First and foremost, a modernized Customs Union is only realistic to the extent Turkey undergoes important reforms in its economic governance structure. Procurement, state aid and services will be subject to a set of rules that the Union can formulate aiming at liberalizing Ankara’s policy framework along the lines of its own objectives. The Turkish government has repeatedly announced its desire for a new reform drive, not least to entice European and other investors to its shores. Yet these have been hollow and hardly implemented, not least because there is a void in a serious compliance and enforcement mechanism that would make said reforms durable and applicable to the country’s circumstances.

Modernizing the CU can become a method to reinsert conditionality for Turkey’s progress and thus reinvigorate a dormant process that has cost Brussels dearly in years past.”

Second, a modernized CU will certainly retain technical characteristics and will mean a quid pro quo approach on issues such as Turkey’s incorporation in new FTAs for Europe with the rest of the world, or the specifics of product regulation. Expanding on the current institutional framework that underpins the CU would mean Turkey’s deeper incorporation in a rule-based form of governance from which it has been absent for a decade. However, it does not, and should not, be restricted to the technical aspects of the CU. Should the Council give a green light for negotiations on CU modernization, it can insert political benchmarks to assess progress. Doing so would reintroduce conditionality in EU-Turkey relations and thus reinvigorate a dormant process that has cost Brussels dearly in years past, not least in terms of its normative capacity to shape facts on the ground. In other words, modernizing the Customs Union with Turkey can become part of the Union’s reaffirmed willingness to affect developments in Turkey in line with its own set of values and priorities instead of remaining a passive, weak receiver of demands formulated away from home. A concrete example of how such conditionality can work relates to inserting aspects of chapters 23 and chapter 24 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights plus Justice, Freedom and Security). Turkey now calls for the opening of the relevant accession chapters and thus displays the willingness to negotiate with the EU, ostensibly in good faith, to address the multiple shortcomings on human rights and the rule of law framework that currently applies. If that same negotiation were to happen under the auspices of the CU, even in a modified form, it would offer the EU the chance to steer Turkey’s authorities towards its own set of goals and block further progress in talks should the desired outcome not transpire.

The “political” argument mentioned above has far-reaching implications and consequences, especially when considering some of its practicable aspects. A concrete proposal that has a lot of merit is one on “sequential negotiations”, negotiating the framework package the two sides agree in principle on in different chunks. Turkey and the EU can activate the Association Council to sanction the new round of talks on a specific item once mutual agreement exists on the successful negotiation of the previous one. In a virtuous loop, success in one item would prepare the ground, and concentrate minds, for success in the next one. Importantly, the successful completion of the entire package would be made a precondition for the permanent applicability of previously negotiated agenda items, offering an incentive to Turkey to go all the way.

The argument has merit beyond its technical characteristics. If the Council were to approve of a step-by-step approach as depicted here, it could also allow for long-standing dispute items to become part of the framework. Cyprus springs to mind: should Turkey wish to indeed upgrade the CU it should also be made aware of the ways in which this is linked to its EU aspirations, namely opening one or more of its ports to Cypriot vessels in accordance with the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement. The manifest symbolism of such a move would be directly rewarded not only by Nicosia, potentially removing the five blocked chapters of the acquis, but by the EU more generally, allowing for a revival of relations with positive repercussions in the Eastern Mediterranean. A similar argument pertains to Greece: good neighborly relations and the normalization of bilateral relations through adherence to internationally accepted standards of law should become part of a revised conditionality package.

Finally, conditionality-based reform to upgrade the CU would send the right signal to another stakeholder: the segment of the Turkish public disappointed by withering conditionality, supportive of EU accession and exasperated by the turn of domestic politics in Turkey in recent years. Turkey’s democrats have been disempowered in recent years, as the lack of accession perspective and democratic backsliding has combined with the Union’s anemic and merely rhetorical support for human rights respect in the country. Bringing in conditionality again, and sticking to it by way of clear benchmarks, would allow that segment of Turkish society to rearticulate a reformist agenda and push for it from within Turkey on the basis of newfound legitimacy.


Economic relations between Turkey and the EU is the only policy area where regression, backsliding and deterioration fail to characterize developments over the past decade. Turkey’s desire to diversify its trade and financial interactions with third countries has made progress, but the EU remains Ankara’s anchor for foreign investment and exporting prowess. There is little to suggest this relationship will change any time soon, despite the worsening political relations of recent years.

In a world of questionable balances and profound uncertainty as to the type of world order that will succeed US dominance, the EU seeks to model itself as a reliable alternative. A rules-based approach, where values and interests combine to make all participants better off, is its preferred motto and advertised solution to the uncertainties of today.

I have argued that such an approach can and should characterize its attitude towards Turkey with respect to upgrading the Customs Union. Set up in 1995, the CU no longer reflects the economic realities of the 21st century, nor does it produce the economic outcomes both sides can expect to see should it be revised. More importantly, the absence of a rules-based framework for negotiating the CU leads to multiple negative consequences. Turkey feels unbound and seeks to establish facts on the (political) ground undeterred by the EU’s passive stance. The EU suffers from a lack of credibility vis á vis its Turkish counterparts, as the latter are keenly aware of the Union’s vulnerabilities (e.g. migration). Moreover, the credibility of accession has been undermined as evidenced by the very low levels of trust among the Turkish public that their country will ever join the Union. Finally, to the EU public, the Union appears ready to cave to Ankara’s occasionally erratic demands to obtain a weak, fragile and insincere transactional relationship.

“Certain EU member states, not least those in close economic partnership with Turkey, feel content with the status quo as their own interests are catered for at the expense of a stronger EU presence.”

The current conundrum results from stagnation and a lack of a political will to unsettle the current balance. Certain EU member states, not least those in close economic partnership with Turkey, feel content with the status quo as their own interests are catered for at the expense of a stronger EU presence. A power asymmetry within the Union is thus perpetuated, whereby Turkey assumes the role of kingmaker on issues ranging from migration to geopolitics. Modernizing the Customs Union by use of a step-by-step approach will benefit Turkey’s approximation with single market legislation and procedures, potentially paving the way for its incorporation in the internal services market. It will offer Ankara concrete economic benefits and remove an obstacle in deeper economic ties between the two sides. But if designed on a step-by-step sequential approach that consistently applies a revised form of conditionality, such a framework can reinvigorate the carrot and stick method towards Ankara that facilitated its reformist drive in the early 2000s. It also promises to assist the democratic segments of its civil society as well as those EU member states who have found themselves searching for an alternative to Turkey’s failed Europeanization. Political timing matters, and such a set of negotiations will not occur overnight.

In December 2020 the European Council gave the green light for talks to commence, provided Turkey’s behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean falls in line with expectations. The 25 March 2021 Council meeting confirmed its invitation to the Council to work on a mandate regarding the Customs Union talks. The time is ripe for the EU to think flexibly and strategically about its relations with Turkey.


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