Turkey says it will not settle for anything less than EU membership

Turkey says it will not settle for anything less than EU membership

The Turkish government will not accept any other outcome other than full European Union membership, Turkish EU Ministry Undersecretary Ambassador Selim Yenel said.

Addressing a symposium over the weekend in Istanbul, EU Ministry Undersecretary Yenel stressed that Ankara does not favor a privileged partnership with Brussels. "They offered us partnership. We do not accept it. Until today, accession talks have been blocked due to political reasons. Turkey does not accept this approach, which poisoned relations with the EU," he said.

Reminding that Turkey expects some concrete steps from the EU in regard to the customs union and visa liberalization, Yenel said the Turkish government has fulfilled nearly all of the 72 criteria in this regard. "We would like to send the ball to their court by changes to our counterterrorism laws," Yenel added.

The EU Ministry undersecretary pointed to a possible EU summit in Varna, Bulgaria in the upcoming months. Ankara is expected to be invited to the summit. Turkey and the EU have recently taken steps to put their relations back on track following a long period of sour ties. "We see 2018 as a year of recovery and coming together. We have efforts in this direction. In the end, we need each other. Nobody can sustain these relations on their own," he said.

"Turkey, which is a strategic partner for Europe and the only democratic country in the region, has been disappointed by Europe in the aftermath of July 15," Yenel added.

Also speaking at the symposium, EU representative in Ankara, Gabriel Munera-Vinals, said the dialogue between the two sides should be constructive. "We believe that political conditions will very soon change and therefore we will be able to start talks for updating the Turkish-EU customs union," he said.

Privileged partnership with the EU was brought to agenda after German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that Brussels should seek new ways of dealing with Ankara. According to Gabriel, the EU needs to find "alternative" ways of creating closer cooperation and partnerships with both Turkey and Ukraine as both countries are unlikely to join the 28-member bloc in the foreseeable future. The German foreign minister presumed that such a model could lead to a "new, closer form of a customs union" between Turkey and the EU.

Updating the customs union and granting Turkey visa liberalization are the two main issues that trouble the relations. In its Dec. 21, 2016, assessment, the European Commission proposed upgrading the current deal. "Modernizing the customs union to reflect current EU-Turkey trade relations would bring substantial economic benefits for both partners," the commission concluded. However, a unanimous decision within the EU is required for taking a step toward the update. Due to political tensions with the EU, above all Germany, the process does not move forward.

On the other hand, visa liberalization was promised to Turkey in the March 2016 refugee deal between Ankara and Brussels. In that deal, Turkey agreed to stop illegal migrants crossing into Greece in exchange for financial aid for the refugees in its care, visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Europe and accelerated EU membership talks.

The EU has a list of 72 criteria for pushing through visa-free travel for Turkish nationals under the landmark. However, five of these "benchmarks" remain unfulfilled, according to the EU executive's assessment. The 28 EU member states and the European Parliament must also approve the visa scheme. The Turkish government has been expected to draw a roadmap to change the necessary points for a while.

Vinals stressed that Brussels hopes that Ankara will fulfill all remaining benchmarks. "We hope that the government, with our support, will fulfill the seven remaining visa liberalization benchmarks […] At the same time, we expect the counterterrorism laws to be changed that will not hinder Turkey's capacity of fighting terror but enhance it on the contrary," he added.