Call us

Navigating Türkiye-EU relations in a changing world: Seizing untapped potential

Ayşe Yürekli , Çiğdem Nas

Date: 13/12/2023
The cost of inaction in Türkiye-EU relations underscores the urgent need for renewed engagement. A report on Türkiye’s progress towards EU accession published in November provides a timely opportunity to reinvigorate engagement in major areas of mutual benefit.

Relations between Türkiye and the European Union (EU) have experienced ebbs and flows, with moments of collaboration and disagreement. Despite serious challenges, the relationship’s enduring value demands a stronger and innovative engagement, particularly at a time of geopolitical upheaval. At the upcoming 14-15 December European Council, EU heads of state and government should endorse the proposals outlined in the report aimed at revitalising ties, in particular, initiating talks for the modernisation of the Türkiye-EU Customs Union and visa facilitation for specific categories of Turkish citizens.

A challenging but significant relationship

Türkiye is a vital partner and EU candidate country, with an association agreement dating back to 1964 and a Customs Union formed in 1995. Despite starting accession negotiations in 2005, progress came to a standstill in June 2018, fuelled by mutual distrust and EU concerns about democratic backsliding. In recent years, the accession deadlock has led to a growing shift toward transactionalism in Türkiye-EU relations and a more interest-based approach.

However, against the backdrop of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war in the Middle East, and the permacrisis, Türkiye-EU relations have regained significance. Türkiye’s strategic location, bridging Europe and the Middle East, and its status as a key NATO member, make it a central player in addressing regional security issues and promoting stability. Its socio-economic ties and role as a major transit route for energy further underscore its importance in the broader context of geopolitical dynamics, making Türkiye-EU relations significant in the face of the latest challenges.

As a result, during the June 2023 European Council, EU leaders requested that the European Commission and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell. The report, addresses the current political, economic, and trade relations between Türkiye and the EU. It builds on the 2021 EU-Türkiye positive agenda, highlighting areas of collaboration that could reinvigorate relations. While the report stops short of proclaiming a new phase, it establishes a cautiously optimistic yet realistic foundation for future ties.

Report recommendations

The report, which was presented by Borrell and European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, provides a detailed analysis of the current state of play as well as flags the broader global and regional developments that impact relations, including Russia’s war against Ukraine. Striking a careful balance takes a 'glass half full' approach, recognising Türkiye as both a partner, neighbour, and, crucially, as a candidate for EU accession. Furthermore, while acknowledging the current standstill in the accession negotiations, it underlines that the accession framework should be maintained. This not only upholds the formal process but also serves as an essential, structured pathway for Türkiye's integration and a key motivator for adherence to European values. Additionally, the report highlights some positive trends, including improved ties with Greece, which culminated in the historic signing of the Athens Declaration on Friendly Relations and Good-Neighbourliness between the two countries on 7 December. There is also relative stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, along with efforts toward regional normalisation with Arab states, the Gulf region, and sustained diplomatic contacts with Armenia.

Four thematic areas for potential positive engagement are flagged: trade and economy, foreign policy and security, mobility and visa issues, and migration. Restarting the high-level dialogues on economy, energy, and transport frozen in 2019, kicking off a high-level dialogue on trade, resuming the Association Council and European Investment Bank operations across all sectors, and reigniting the comprehensive air transport agreement are necessary recommendations.

Boosting foreign policy cooperation

Recognising Türkiye as a major foreign policy actor, the report advocates closer alignment with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Inviting the Turkish Foreign Minister to the so-called Gymnich meetings, reinstating high-level dialogue on security and defence policy, and increasing Türkiye’s contributions to EU missions and operations in line with a stronger EU-NATO partnership are among the recommendations. However, this may not be easy, given the long-standing veto of Cyprus due to the unresolved Cyprus problem. Türkiye’s return to the UN led process to resolve the decades old problem will almost certainly be a prerequisite for progress. Furthermore, there are areas of Turkish foreign policy which are unlikely to become aligned with the EU, including Russia, Syria, and the Israel-Hamas war. The Turkish stance on Sweden's accession to NATO was also seen negatively, adding a layer of complexity to the challenges at hand.

Modernising the Customs Union

The report's primary recommendation focuses on the long-overdue negotiations to modernise the Türkiye-EU Customs Union, which could potentially provide the backbone of revitalised relations, with conditionality attached to opening negotiations to prevent circumvention of EU sanctions on Russia. This includes addressing re-export concerns of Common High Priority i.e. battlefield items and resolving current irritants in Türkiye-EU trade. Modernising the Customs Union would benefit both parties, notably deepening the economic relationship within a restructured and rules-based framework. It would also be pivotal to facilitate the continent’s transition to a carbon-neutral and digital economy.

Moreover, the report subtly links the prospective negotiating mandate to the resumption of Cyprus settlement talks, referencing the 2005 Additional Protocol dispute. As an annex to the Ankara Agreement, it extends its application to include all EU Member States, including Cyprus. At the December European Council, EU leaders should finally adopt the negotiating mandate submitted by the Commission in 2016. Besides, an update of the negotiating framework is essential to include green and digital transitions alongside the initially envisaged areas like trade in services, upgrading agricultural trade concessions, and liberalising public procurement markets.

Furthermore, Türkiye's advanced integration into EU structures and value chains through the Customs Union and participation in EU agencies and programmes would create a robust foundation for future relations. NGOs and business associations like TOBB (The Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Türkiye) and TÜSİAD (Turkish Industry and Business Association) further fortify these ties through extensive connections to their European counterparts and membership in EU-wide umbrella organisations.


Türkiye is urged to intensify efforts to counter irregular migration and resume readmissions from the Greek islands, owing to a recent resurgence of irregular migration over the eastern Mediterranean route in 2023. The report recommends increasing resettlements from and returns to Türkiye and mentions that around 40.000 Syrian refugees have been resettled from Türkiye into the EU in line with the 2016 Statement. Nevertheless, the EU should take into consideration that viewing Türkiye solely as a repository for refugees and pushing back migration towards the country will only exacerbate Ankara’s burden amid an ongoing economic downturn. Migration should be tackled in a broader context, encompassing enhancing economic and trade relations, accelerated harmonisation, and convergence in terms of legislation, norms, and standards. Additionally, fostering increased political dialogue and creating greater opportunities for people-to-people contacts are essential. Both sides share an interest in revisiting the 2016 Statement along these lines, considering new developments in the region and ongoing humanitarian conditions.

Visa liberalisation

Finally, streamlining the visa application process for specific categories such as businesspeople, students, and people with relatives in the EU is crucial. This reflects the numerous difficulties and barriers that Turkish citizens face when applying for a visa.

While Türkiye continues to fall short of meeting all of the benchmarks in the visa liberalisation roadmap, swift measures in terms of visa facilitation could be adopted as suggested in the report. This would help rebuild trust and enhance ties. Simultaneously, Ankara must also take steps to meet the remaining criteria, including reaching an operational cooperation agreement with Europol, revising terrorism legislation to align with European standards, and comprehensively implementing the EU-Türkiye readmission agreement, including third-country nationals.

Looking ahead

Implementing the recommendations of the Borell Report would pave the way for a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship. The foundation of this relationship would hinge on an enhanced and modernised trade and economic partnership—specifically, through the initiation of Customs Union modernisation talks—which could eventually spill over into the political and governance-related areas of Türkiye’s alignment with the EU. In light of the fragility of the reengagement process, though, a progressive, proportionate, yet reversible approach is likely to be upheld.

Thus, a unique opportunity now presents itself to reshape the narrative and give hope to the many Turks who still look to the EU for their future. According to a recent survey conducted by the IKV (Economic Development Foundation) and Metropoll, resulted in 66% support for EU membership. This unwavering support paints a promising picture, hinting at the prospect of a positive future.

On 14-15 December, EU leaders should seize the untapped potential of Türkiye-EU relations by prioritising practical and pragmatic steps. By charting a visionary path, choosing possibilities over obstacles, fostering greater engagement, and encouraging closer collaboration, the European Council holds the key to a positive future for both Türkiye-EU relations and the entire European continent.

Çiğdem Nas is an Associate Professor of International Relations and a Lecturer at Yıldız Technical University in Istanbul. Since 2007, she serves concurrently as the Secretary General at IKV (Economic Development Foundation), a distinguished NGO dedicated to Türkiye’s EU integration. Her research interests include European integration, Türkiye-EU relations, European politics, identity, and foreign policy.

Ayşe Yürekli is a Brussels-based Researcher, Analyst, and Commentator with extensive experience in policy, business, and civil society. Specialising in the European Union, she focuses on promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. In her most recent role, she served as a senior expert at TUSIAD, the Turkish Industry and Business Association (Berlin Office).

This Commentary is part of the EPC’s Global Türkiye Project.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
European Union, 2023

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten