The European Union should take concrete steps to enhance bilateral ties with Turkey and the customs union deal must be updated, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Thursday.
Speaking at a joint news conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas in Berlin, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey expects constructive steps from the bloc, including visa liberalization.
"There has been a positive atmosphere with the EU and Germany has contributed to this, but it is about time to take concrete steps now," Çavuşoğlu told reporters, adding that the 2016 deal also needs to be implemented.
Maas, for his part, said that Germany supports a constructive Turkey-EU dialogue.
"Turkey is an important NATO ally and Germany has always emphasized this. It will continue to be so in the future," Maas said.
He continued by saying that Germany supports the Turkey-EU dialogue.
"We know ... that we are interested in these talks, and of course in goals and results. Last year, was a difficult year in the relationship between the EU and Turkey. This year looks to be a much better one."
In March 2016, Ankara and Brussels signed an agreement to reduce the number of migrants taking the dangerous Aegean Sea route to Europe and to find a solution for the influx of migrants heading to EU countries. Despite significant developments controlling migration traffic, Turkey has frequently complained that the EU has not fully delivered on its commitments stated in the deal and criticized the international community for its indifference to the migrant crisis.
Turkish and European officials have over the last couple of years carried out talks on revising the current customs deal. Although the talks stalled as a result of political tensions, business circles and officials on both sides have endeavored to maintain dialogue.
Turkey is the only non-EU country with a customs union agreement with the bloc. The deal was struck with the EU in 1995. In its Dec. 21, 2016, assessment, the European Commission proposed revamping the deal.
The current deal only covers a limited range of industrial products and excludes agriculture, public procurement, e-commerce and services.
Officials have said with the inclusion of these sectors, bilateral trade between Turkey and the EU could reach $300 billion (TL 2.15 trillion), a substantial increase from the current $165 billion.
The visa liberalization was designed so that Turkish citizens with biometric passports would be able to spend 90 days within 180 days in the Schengen area without a visa. With this initiative, Turkey-EU ties, which were struggling, entered a new era through the migration crisis.
The EU has three conditions for full membership: complying with all the EU's standards and rules, gaining the consent of the EU institutions and EU member states and gaining the consent of the candidate country's citizens with approval either in the national parliament or by referendum.
Although any European country with a shared respect for the EU's democratic values is eligible to apply, the criteria that were determined in 1993 in Copenhagen must be met in order to become a full member.
These criteria include democratic, stable institutions, rule of law, a well-functioning market economy and a capacity to implement the necessary requirements for membership. Currently, there are 35 criteria, covering various areas, from transportation and energy to the environment and human rights. Yet, even if all of these conditions are met by the candidate country, there is one more challenge that needs to be fulfilled: The EU itself has to be eligible to accept new members.
Turkey's negotiations for a full membership started back in 2005 and yet, with a rather slow process, only 16 chapters have been opened and one has been closed so far. Since 2016, the accession negotiations have stalled.
Back in 2017, as no chapter had been opened for two years, the European Commission set up a "Positive Agenda" to speed up the process. In this respect, working groups were established for the opening of eight chapters, including Chapter 23 and Chapter 24, which are on Judiciary and Fundamental Rights and on Justice, Freedom and Security, respectively. In reality, the screening of the chapters was already completed back in 2006 and yet, the EU has failed to communicate with Turkey on determining the benchmark criteria of these chapters, which has left Ankara in limbo on how to comply with them.
Turkey-EU relations are marked by disputes on several issues, including the Eastern Mediterranean tensions, Turkey's role in Syria, the migrant crisis and the stalemate in Turkey's accession process to the bloc.
In response to a question about the so-called "Sofa Gate" scandal, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey strictly followed protocol and was not responsible for the crisis.
"We are saddened to see intra-EU tensions exposed during the meeting with our president; the reason for 'Sofa Gate' was the competition between EU’s branches of council and commission," Çavuşoğlu said.
Turkey received a torrent of criticism after images went viral of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi even called Erdoğan a dictator in the aftermath of the incident, sparking a furious response from Turkey.
The diplomatic faux pas was instantly branded "Sofa Gate" on Twitter and became the dominant talking point of the first Turkey-EU summit in a year.
The three leaders had been trying to set a more positive tone in relations after months of spats.
But the talks ended with European officials accusing Turkey of chauvinism, linking the incident to Erdoğan's withdrawal a month earlier from the Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence.
Çavuşoğlu also said Turkey and Germany have reached a consensus on the withdrawal of mercenaries from Libya, but Ankara has a bilateral agreement with the Libyan government for its troops to be stationed there.
He said Turkish troops in Libya are there under agreement with Libya's previous Government of National Accord (GNA) and should not be confused with the foreign mercenaries stationed there.
"There are many foreign fighters and mercenaries present in Libya. We agree that they need to withdraw," Çavuşoğlu said and added that but "intervention" by third parties into bilateral accords covering military training and support would be wrong.
"I think that foreign mercenaries and legitimate presence there should not be confused," he said.
He also warned that calling on Ankara to end its support for Libya's government would in fact undermine this legitimate government.
The "agreement between the two sovereign countries addresses essential needs of Libya with regards to military training and consultancy, (and) ending this support would not be in favor of Libya," said Çavuşoğlu.
Calls from third parties to end the "agreement between the two countries would not be the correct approach," he added.
Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also held a videoconference late Wednesday and discussed bilateral and Turkey-EU relations as well as regional issues.
Merkel told Erdoğan that the withdrawal of foreign troops from Libya would be an "important signal" as both leaders vowed to support the new interim government there.
The two leaders agreed to support the interim government in its efforts to improve the supply situation for the population and in preparing elections by year-end.
Referring to the latest developments in Libya, Erdoğan reaffirmed Turkey's support for the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Libya and willingness to cooperate with Germany in this regard.
On Feb. 5, Libya's rival political groups agreed during U.N.-mediated talks in Geneva to form an interim government to lead the country to elections this December. Libyan delegates elected Mohammad Younes Menfi to head a three-member Presidential Council and Abdul Hamid Dbeibah as the new prime minister.
Libya's new unity government was sworn in on March 15 from two warring administrations that had ruled eastern and western regions, completing a relatively smooth transition of power after a decade of violent chaos.
Turkey had backed the legitimate Tripoli-based GNA against the illegitimate eastern-based forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar, which was supported by Russia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France.