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21st Oct 2018

EU looks to trade treaty for better Turkey relations

  • Istanbul - the customs pact dates back to 1996 (Photo: Remon Rijper)

The European Commission has asked member states to upgrade trade relations with Turkey, but said this would be conditional on respect for democracy.

The proposal comes amid fraying relations with Turkey over its crackdown on alleged coup sympathisers and Kurdish separatists, as well as its ever-closer links with Russia.

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  • Erdogan (l) and Putin recently revived work on an EU gas pipeline (Photo: Kremlin)

The commission said on Wednesday (21 December) it had asked the Council, which represents EU countries, to “modernise” its 1996 Customs Union with Turkey.

The upgrade is expected to let Turkey sell almost all types of agricultural products into the EU without tariffs and to relax restrictions on manufactured goods and services, boosting bilateral trade, which is already worth €140 billion a year, by over €30 billion.

It would also let Turkish firms bid for public procurement contracts in EU states and would see Turkey included in EU trade deals with third countries.

The commission noted that the upgrade would also have political value.

It said trade ties “form an essential part of the efforts made by the EU and Turkey to deepen their relations”, but it added that “respect of democracy and fundamental rights will be an essential element of the agreement”.

The negotiations are expected to take at least two years.

Boosting Erdogan

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian handling of July’s failed coup, and of the conflict with Kurdish separatists, has annoyed many in Europe.

Austria, as well as the European Parliament, recently said the EU should halt Turkey’s accession talks due to Erdogan’s arrests of tens of thousands of alleged coup plotters and Kurdish sympathisers.

The purge included detention of opposition MPs and closures of Erdogan-critical media.

Erdogan reacted by threatening to let Syrian refugees go en masse to Europe and by saying he might forego closer EU ties in favour of joining the China and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The tension was on show again last week when Belgian authorities detained Maxime Azadi, a Kurdish journalist, on the basis of a Turkish request to Interpol, the international police body in France, prompting an outcry by NGOs, such as the European Federation of Journalists.

Erdogan critics, such as Alon Ben-Meir, a scholar of international relations at New York University, have also warned that EU policies that help Turkey to boost economic growth with no strings attached have allowed him to remain popular despite civil rights abuses.

Turkey U-turn

The commission’s proposal also comes amid ever-closer links between Turkey and Russia, which threaten Western strategic interests.

Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently move ahead on plans to build a new gas pipeline to the EU that risks fomenting internal divisions in Europe by bypassing Ukraine and central and eastern EU states.

Russian state media, such as the Sputnik online outlet, have spoken of a U-turn by Turkey toward Russia.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, on the day of the commission announcement, accused the EU of lacking solidarity with Turkey on refugees.

"We know that in many respects Ankara's expectations have been betrayed by Brussels. And therefore this load, these refugees, are carried by Turkey on its shoulders," he said in an interview with the MIR TV satellite broadcaster.

He also said the killing of Andrei Karlov, Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, earlier this week was designed to harm the rapprochement.

"Murdering Karlov aims to prevent both the normalisation process between the two countries,” Peskov said, adding that Russian investigators in Ankara were trying to identify who was behind the shooting.

Karlov was shot dead during a press conference by a Turkish police officer who shouted out that he did it because Russia’s support for the Syrian regime in its brutal assault on the Syrian city of Aleppo.

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