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Turkey-EU Relations: The Last European Council Summit of 2020

The advancement between Turkey-EU relations witnessed in the beginning of the century has been replaced, especially during the last four years, by disengagement practices and reduced interests in convergent policies. Turkey is increasingly lonelier in its neighborhood, particularly on the Eastern Mediterranean: several economic, technical, and even military developments occurred in opposition to Ankara´s interests throughout 2020. In the final document produced by the European Council at the summit on 10-11 December 2020, Turkey was mentioned only in discussions regarding security issues, namely the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, similar to the previous Council meeting held in October, the state of human rights and democracy in Turkey were not discussed.

Until recently, advancing relations between both parties was motivated by Ankara´s full membership process, which was officially initiated in 1999, although other approaching mechanisms were already embodied in structures such as the Customs Union. This arrangement, which is essentially a free trade agreement, was established in 1996, though was proposed since the Ankara Agreement in 1963 and further detailed by the Additional Protocol in 1970. The deteriorating performance mentioned can be identified in recommendations by the European Parliament to suspend accession negotiations, which first happened after Turkey declared a state of emergency following the July 2016 coup attempt and subsequently twice more after the constitutional referendum of April 2017, which transformed the parliamentary model to a presidential one.

Membership or Customs Union Alternative?

It is evident that accession negotiations require a Europeanization process in Turkey, with the fulfillment of political conditions and reforms.[1] Even though this process is not the only incentive for the democratization process in the country, it was responsible for the major adjustments notably between 2001 and 2004. In October 2001, for example, Ankara adopted the first constitutional reform package with 34 amendments to the 1982 Constitution, revising death penalty and addressing articles on freedom of expression. One month later, a new Civil Code was adopted in order to promote gender equality in marriage, by means of guaranteeing women's right to property in cases of divorce. Other improvements concerned additional protection of political, cultural, and social rights, as well as limiting the role of the military in politics, which experienced resistance from nationalist and conservative political groups. As the urge to fulfil the Copenhagen criteria prompted Turkey´s Europeanization process, the lack of membership prospect reduces Ankara´s willingness toward such reforms.

Differently, the Customs Union requires lower political integration with higher economic interdependence. While Ankara has always viewed the arrangement as a mechanism to facilitate its accession process, Brussels has perceived it as a structure to establish closer economic integration with its neighbor. Nevertheless, adjustments were also required for the Customs Union, such as adaptations according to the Common Commercial Policy legislation, including competition rules, protection of consumer rights, and intellectual property rights.

In May 2015 a process to upgrade the Customs Union apart from membership means begun in order to reduce disagreements on the medium-term agenda, even with the prospect of accession ceased.  However, in August 2017, after a bilateral diplomatic crisis between Germany and Turkey broke out due to the degradation of the rule of law by Ankara, Berlin vetoed the Customs Union revision to the European Commission and requested the suspension of ongoing negotiation activities. Angela Merkel declared this would be undone when the assurance of fundamental rights was improved by releasing detained journalists and human rights activists, including German citizens such as Deniz Yücel, a Die Welt daily correspondent.

Two years later, in March 2019, the European Parliament emphasized the importance of revising the Customs Union in order to encourage deeper ties between both parties and enhance further democratic reforms by Ankara. Nevertheless, without consensus by the Council on this decision, the European Commission did not receive authorization to proceed regarding this topic.

This modernizing agenda on the Customs Union was considered at the October European Council Summit in 2020, although the possibility of sanctions also remained open. Before this summit, Ankara withdrew the Oruç Reis vessel from the Eastern Mediterranean and, shortly after the meeting, deployed it again. Then, before the December summit, as Ankara withdrew the vessel once again, European Council President Charles Michel warned Turkey not to play “cat and mouse”, referring to this act of withdrawal and redeployment.[2]

At the conclusion of the summit, the EU decided not to impose new sanctions against Ankara and the country's unilateral engagements in the Eastern Mediterranean, only expanding those already approved against individuals and institutions participating in activities of hydrocarbon exploration in the region. While the sanctions formulated during the October summit were more symbolic and narrower than expected, the last summit´s outcome also had minor consequences than anticipated by EU member states such as France, Greece, and Cyprus. The wider sanctions expected to be imposed during the summit, or even an arms embargo, were not part of the conclusions.

At the December summit, Germany, Italy, and Spain asserted for a more serious decision against Turkey to be postponed. While Madrid urged for a constructive dialogue, Rome especially was more negative toward imposing sanctions on Ankara straightaway.[3] This division is not only due to the differing views of main European powers on how to behave toward Turkey, but also due to the EU´s declining influence on Ankara. Furthermore, the summit´s final comment on Turkey was in relation to Joe Biden´s presidency, in which the bloc mentioned that matters on the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey would be coordinated with the United States.[4] As for arms sales, it was agreed that coordination with the new US administration, together with debates among NATO members, should conduce the discussion about arms exports to Turkey.[5]

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, when comparing the October and December summits, considered the latter more reasonable than the previous, but still criticized the threatening language employed by the leaders and the lack of solidarity and cooperation.[6]

It is important to note that the EU highly depends on Turkey´s cooperation, especially concerning the refugee issue and overall stability in its immediate neighborhood. Ankara has been a bulwark against unwanted immigration, so the currently intensified unilateralism and militarized foreign policy in its regional actions and operations are not favorable for the EU. The March 2016 agreement is, despite threats against Greece, an arrangement Brussels intends to keep. To this end, the bloc has established the EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey, which acts in collaboration with Turkish Ministries, NGOs, INGOs, and other institutions, providing 6 billion euros for projects that will run until 2025.[7] On 17 December 2020, featuring the end of the contracting from the March 2016 EU-Turkey Statement´s operational budget, the EU delegation to Turkey signed the final eight contracts under this facility.[8] The contracts will operate for an average of two years and display the provision of 780 million euros in areas such as basic needs, health care, protection, municipal infrastructure, as well as vocational and technical education, training, and entrepreneurship.

Finally, trade relations are also important to highlight, as European countries represented more than 55 percent of Turkey´s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) during the period 2003-2019.[9] More than 20,000 European companies operate in the country, with either indirect or with capital participation. While France and Spain are the biggest suppliers to Ankara in arms trade, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy represent a significant share in investments as a whole.


The EU-Turkey relationship is very specific and both parties rely greatly on each other for different purposes. In this sense, while accession processes are carried out with other countries to enter the world's largest trading bloc, Turkey´s agreement remains unstable, with constant attitude adjustments from both sides and no clear perspective of coming years´ possibilities. Nevertheless, developments in this relationship occur frequently due to the importance of the issues it involves. Turkey's current geopolitical isolation demands a more receptive stance with the EU, since sanctions nowadays would worsen Turkey’s already deteriorated economy. The Customs Union revision is an engaging tool for both parties in today´s hostile environment, as portrayed in the December European Council summit.


[1] Meltem Muftuler-Bac, "Turkey's Political Reforms: The Impact of the European Union," South European Society and Politics, Vol.10, No.1 (April 2005), p.17.

[2] John Chalmers, "Cat-and-mouse game with Turkey must stop, Michel says," Reuters, 4 December 2020,

[3] Senhan Bolelli, "Spain premier urges 'constructive dialogue' with Turkey," Anadolu Agency, 16 December 2020,

[4] European Council, "European Council conclusions," 11 December 2020,

[5] Paul Carrel, Thomas Escritt, and Maria Sheahan, "EU to discuss arms exports to Turkey with NATO, new U.S. administration – Merkel," Reuters, 11 December 2020,

[6] Havva Kara Aydin and Faruk Zorlu, "‘US sanctions attack Turkey’s sovereign rights´," Anadolu Agency, 17 December 2020,

[7] Delegation of the European Union to Turkey, "EU Completes Contracting under the EUR 6 Billion Package in Support of Refugees and Host Communities in Turkey," 17 December 2020,

[8] Delegation of the European Union to Turkey, "EUR 6 Billion Package.”

[9] Presidency of the Republic of Turkey Investment Office, "FDI in Turkey,"



Clarice Rangel Schreiner
Clarice Rangel Schreiner

Clarice Rangel Schreiner is an International Relations student at ESPM-Sul, Brazil, and is currently interning at Istanbul Policy Center (IPC), Turkey.

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