Türkiye-EU Relations: Walking in Harmony or Dancing to Different Beats?

Imagine a waltz: two partners, connected yet independent, moving in a complicated yet graceful sequence. This dance closely resembles the relationship between the EU and Türkiye, a partnership of strategic importance and historical significance, yet fraught with challenges, experts say.


At the heart of this relationship lies “mutuality,” and “modernizing the Customs Union” is at the top of this mutuality, Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of the European Parliament, believes. Exclusively answering Daily Sabah’s questions, the experienced diplomat, who served as minister of EU affairs in Poland, said, “Updating the agreement could lead to greater market access.”

Czarnecki is not pessimistic when it comes to the future of bilateral relations and is of the same opinion as Monica Ricci Sargentini, a veteran journalist based in Italy.

“I think, in the end, they are going to work on what unites rather than what divides,” Sargentini said in an interview with Daily Sabah.

“The relations have always experienced ebbs and flows. It seems to me that we live in a kind of limbo, it is almost 20 years that accession negotiations started and I think there is a kind of fatigue and disappointment on both sides,” she also added.


Wars and deals

Sargentini, who works at the foreign editorial board of Italy’s leading daily Corriere della Sera, echoes Czarnecki over the customs union angle but, according to her, the geopolitical crises such as the Russia-Ukraine war and the Gaza war have currently made bilateral negotiations “more important than ever.”

“The wars have made Türkiye’s role as an ally for the EU so important,” she said, pointing to the country’s strategic position in assisting in solving turmoil.

Czrnacki argues that while geopolitical crises are impactful, modernizing customs unions is more crucial as it provides tangible steps for immediate action. “This could benefit various sectors of the Turkish economy, including manufacturing, agriculture and services, by providing access to the EU’s single market and fostering economic growth,” he notes.

He defines modernization as a practical starting point for a broader diplomacy and dialogue campaign, necessary for a better future in the medium term.

The current customs union, signed in 1995 and came into effect on the last day of that year, allows for tariff-free trade in industrial goods and processed agricultural products. However, it does not cover services, agriculture or regulatory harmonization.

Türkiye has been seeking to update the agreement to include these areas, but negotiations have been slow due to political tensions and disagreements over issues such as migration management and geopolitical dynamics such as the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus.

Türkiye, a candidate country for EU membership, serves as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, providing the bloc with access to a critical region. Similarly, the EU represents stability and economic prosperity for Türkiye, with the promise of deeper integration and growth.

The said customs union modernization “poses challenges and requires careful negotiation” as well, according to Czarnecki. “Issues such as regulatory harmonization, competition policy, and the movement of goods and services would need to be addressed to ensure a level playing field and fair competition between Türkiye and EU member states,” he explained.

“Moreover, the process of modernization would need to take into account broader geopolitical considerations and the evolving dynamics of bilateral relations.”

Like any complex relationship, however, missteps can occur. Long-standing disagreements have hindered progress toward closer ties, leaving both sides grappling with challenges.

In this context, Czarnecki points to the “role of diplomacy and dialogue in addressing problems.” He believes, “Mutual understanding and confidence can be fostered via only the rooms diplomacy door opens.”

Türkiye’s relationship with the European project began in 1959 with the signing of the Ankara Agreement. This agreement aimed at gradual economic integration between Türkiye and the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the EU. This marked the start of a long-term vision of convergence and potential future membership for the country.

In 1999, Türkiye’s aspirations took a concrete step forward when it was granted official candidate status for full EU membership. This decision was met with both enthusiasm and caution within the EU, reflecting the mixed nature involved in integrating a large and culturally diverse nation like Türkiye.

Formal accession negotiations commenced in 2005 during the term of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who still governs the country. These negotiations involved a comprehensive assessment of Türkiye’s alignment with the EU’s acquis communautaire, a vast body of laws, regulations and policies that form the foundation of the bloc. The process involved opening and then provisionally closing individual chapters, each representing a specific policy area, upon fulfilling the established criteria.

However, the road to membership proved challenging. Progress on the negotiations was slow. By 2016, only 16 out of the 35 chapters had been opened, and just one had been provisionally closed.

By 2018, the accession talks reached a standstill. The EU expressed its dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on key issues, while Türkiye criticized what it perceived as double standards and a lack of commitment from the EU. This resulted in a de facto suspension of the accession process, leaving the future of Türkiye’s EU membership in a state of uncertainty.

Despite the stalled negotiations, the relationship between the bloc and Türkiye remains multifaceted. Both sides continue to cooperate on various issues of mutual interest. This ongoing engagement, though not directly linked to the accession process, demonstrates the intertwined nature of their relationship.

For many, the very relationship resembles “mehter yürüyüşü,” also known as “iki ileri bir geri” (“two steps forward, one step back”), a traditional Turkish military march performed by the Mehter, the Ottoman military band. It is a slow, stately march that is characterized by its distinctive rhythm and the use of traditional Ottoman instruments such as the zurna, kös and davul.

The “iki ileri bir geri” rhythm of the “mehter yürüyüşü” is said to represent the difficulties of battle, and it is a reminder that even amid difficulty, there is always hope for victory. The march is also a symbol of Turkish resilience and determination and is a source of pride for the Turkish people.


Cyprus dispute

The island of Cyprus has been a point of contention for decades, with the ongoing dispute between the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community impacting not only the island itself but also relations between Türkiye and the EU. The conflict’s roots lie in the 1960s, following the island’s independence from British rule. Tensions between the two communities escalated, culminating in a 1974 coup d’etat by Greek Cypriot nationalists and a subsequent Turkish military intervention. This resulted in the de facto partition of the island, with the Republic of Cyprus (internationally recognized but controlling only the south) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) (recognized only by Türkiye).

The EU’s involvement further complicated the situation. When the Republic of Cyprus applied for EU membership in 1990, Türkiye objected, citing the unresolved dispute. Despite this, the EU accepted Cyprus in 2004, but with a caveat: The north would be excluded from the benefits of membership until a reunification agreement was reached.

Numerous attempts have been made to find a solution to the Cyprus dispute, including U.N.-backed negotiations and bi-communal talks. However, no lasting solution has been achieved.

Resolving the Cyprus dispute remains crucial for both regional stability and the future of EU-Turkey relations. While the path forward is uncertain, continued dialogue, compromise and addressing the underlying concerns of both communities will be essential for achieving a lasting and peaceful solution.

Sargentine, who has visited the island of Cyprus many times, said she has observed that the two populations on the island (Turks and Greeks) are “drifting apart with different languages, habits and traditions,” which is why “a solution should be found, but it’s so difficult to do so.”,