Turkey’s Exclusion from TTIP Sours Relations with EU and U.S. (3/09)     Print Email

brianbeary-august2011By Brian Beary, Washington Correspondent for EuroPolitics

“If there is no interest, any relationship will come to an end.” A stark warning from Turkey's EU affairs minister, Volkan Bozkir, on a trip in February to Washington, acknowledging the drift in Turkey's relations with its European Union and United States. Having spent decades trying to ensconce itself in the transatlantic community, joining NATO in 1952 and entering a customs union with the EU in 1996, Turkey's westward alignment is witnessing a reversal. The immediate cause of anxiety for Bozkir was the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the biggest ever bilateral free trade pact, under negotiation since summer 2013, and from which Turkey is excluded since it is not in the EU.

With trade the lifeblood of Turkey's economy, being left out in the cold was always going to hurt. But with TTIP, there is a more pressing reason why exclusion is painful. Obliged to align its tariff rates with the EU's because of the customs union, that means whatever tariff cuts or eliminations the EU grants to US products under TTIP must be granted by Turkey too. So while U.S. exporters will gain greater access to the Turkish market under TTIP, Turkish businesses will get no reciprocal access to the U.S. market as Turkey and the US have no free trade agreement. This has triggered frenetic diplomatic activity as Turkish officials knock on doors in Brussels and Washington seeking privileged access to TTIP.

When he spoke at the German Marshall Fund, Bozkir called for a “small addition” to TTIP to say “this will be implemented by customs union members.” As Turkey is the only country with a customs union with the EU, such a clause would essentially be an exclusive docking mechanism. A glance at the trade figures shows that Turkey's relationship with the EU dwarfs that with the U.S., with €152 billion ($165B) in goods and services traded between EU and Turkey in 2013, compared with $19B for total US-Turkey trade. As TTIP aims to expand market access and become a gold standard for how to regulate in the public interest without hampering trade, Turkey very much wants in on this deal.

Asked about Ankara's demand, Catherine Novelli, US Under-Secretary of State for economic growth, energy and environment and a former Assistant US Trade Representative for Europe and the Mediterranean, was non-committal. “We really haven't crossed that bridge, nor have we put it off the table,” she said. Only after TTIP is concluded can options be considered, she suggested, while recognizing the “unique situation” that Turkey is in due to the customs union.

The EU Ambassador to the U.S., David O'Sullivan, has a strong background in trade, having led the European Commission's trade directorate general from 2005 to 2010 when he was negotiating multiple bilateral trade agreements. Asked about the Turkey problem on a trip to Washington shortly after the TTIP talks began, he stressed it was not a new problem, having cropped up in previous bilateral trade deals. When the EU in 2010 signed a free trade deal with South Korea, for instance, the Koreans agreed to follow it up by concluding a free trade agreement with Turkey. “I imagine that is how we will deal with Turkey,” he said. TTIP is a much bigger deal than the Korean one, covering a bigger slice of the global economy and having greater ambitions on the regulatory cooperation side.

Meanwhile, as Turkey looks for an in on TTIP, the worsening political climate between it and the EU and U.S. is not helping it to make its case. In Turkey's decades-old quest to join the EU, a seemingly endless tale of raised and dashed hopes, both partners seem pessimistic. Having welcomed the progress Turkey made in the 1990s and early 2000s in becoming more democratic and showing greater respect for human rights, the EU has watched with dismay the recent unraveling of this progress. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's leader, who was Prime Minister from 2003 until 2014, when he became the first directly-elected president, is accused of 'Putinizing' Turkey by embracing the same authoritarian model of government that Vladimir Putin has forged in Russia. Erdogan has tightened his grip over all branches of government - executive, judiciary and legislature - and repressed freedom of expression by actions such as banning access to sites like Youtube and Twitter and imprisoning journalists.

When Bozkir spoke at the German Marshall Fund, there was a palpable chilliness in the air. Several Turkish journalists complained about government harassment of their colleagues, forcing an embarrassed Bozkir to tersely defend the Erdogan government. “There are journalists who are in jail but not because what they have written or said,” he said. One Turkish reporter, Adem Y. Arslan, Washington correspondent of the daily newspaper Bugun, told European Affairs: “In the last couple of years, Turkey has been experiencing a significant decline in press freedom.” He has first-hand experiences of this, including a distressing incident in New York in September 2014 when Erdogan was at the UN General Assembly. “Erdogan's bodyguards and advisers physically attacked me at the Peninsula Hotel lobby where he was staying,” he said. The attack was witnessed by other Turkish reporters but they did nothing, afraid they would lose their jobs if they intervened, he said.

In this backdrop, Turkey's EU accession hopes – talks have been ongoing since 2005 – are effectively dead, while the future of its customs union may be in doubt. Meanwhile, Turkey's relations with the U.S. are also cooling. Ankara's ambivalent stance toward regional Islamist militant groups, especially ISIS and al-Nusra, lies at the root of these tensions. According to Bugun correspondent Arslan, Turkey's security bureaucracy turns a blind eye to Islamist militant activity, such as arms and money smuggling and recruitment in refugee camps, making the country “a Jihadi heaven.” He said that “it wouldn't surprise me if the next generation of jihadists are Turkish citizens,” which obviously would be a huge security headache for Europe and the U.S.

While Turkish officials mostly manage to maintain a veil of politeness when asking for closer trade ties, they occasionally let the veil slip and expose the raw resentment they feel over being cold-shouldered. Minister Bozkir, after calmly elaborating on the benefits to all sides of Turkey acceding to TTIP, then proceeded to deliver a withering assessment of what Turkish people really think of the EU. “Like the Titanic – going down,” he said, referring to the Eurozone's economic woes. “The EU doesn't have the luxury to keep Turkey outside forever waiting,” he added.