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EU Turkey customs union: trade committee in quest to square trade-human rights circle

The European Parliament is preparing to back the launch of customs union upgrade talks with Turkey but is engaging in a careful balancing act on human rights.


The European Parliament’s trade committee is preparing a report on the planned launch of negotiations with Turkey to upgrade the EU’s existing customs union with its neighbour. The matter is politically sensitive in Brussels as the EU’s legislative body voted in the autumn 2016 to suspend Turkey’s accession process to the bloc due to the country’s deteriorating human rights record.

The Commission is proposing to launch customs union talks regardless. It has requested a mandate from the member states: their decision to greenlight the launch of negotiations is expected in the coming weeks.

In a separate note accompanying the draft resolution debated on Monday (27 Februar 2017), the rapporteur on the file, David Borrelli, a Five Star Movement MEP from Italy, wrote: “we will …. be able to give real added institutional and political value if we can achieve two types of results: – Formulate concrete, precise and attainable proposals on the specific case of the Customs Union; – Strengthen, at the same time, the support for social values, those of trade unions and the EU’s own rights through progressive and binding negotiation instruments”.   

It is not only the trade committee that is seeking a political balancing act between upgrading trade ties with one of the EU’s biggest trading partners and ensuring core EU values and norms are respected. 

A separate opinion submitted by the parliament’s committee on civil liberties, justice and home affairs presented to the trade committee today did not oppose the launch of customs union talks with Turkey. LIBE is asking instead for specific concessions from Turkey on human rights. “Respect for the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights must be an important element of an enhanced “customs union”, the committee’s opinion says. “Respect for fundamental rights and the rule of law is not only important for Turkish citizens, but also for businesses and investors”, the LIBE opinion reads.  

On trade issues specifically, the INTA draft report says that as “a prerequisite for the modernisation of the [c]ustoms [u]nion … Turkey should refrain from adopting any protectionist or restrictive measures, such as the unilateral imposition of customs duties and non-tariff barriers on goods produced”. 

INTA MEPs also insist that energy and raw materials be properly addressed in the negotiations, and that Turkey be made to apply the customs union to Cyprus, an EU member state, something it is not doing.  

The EU aims to extend the coverage of the customs union to include services, agriculture and public procurement. It also aims to strengthen dispute resolution mechanisms to tackle problems with non compliance with the customs union agreement provisions. Turkey wants better access to the EU’s services markets and notably road transport, as well as the easing of visas for business travellers.   

Ankara also wants to have a bigger say in EU trade negotiations. Turkey complains that, as part of the EU’s customs union, it needs to apply what the EU decides in its bilateral trade agreements, but has no say in negotiations and does not get the benefits – better market access in third countries – in return. At the same time, Turkey is not a member of the EU, making it difficult to give it a decision making role. Turkey has asked for an observer status in the trade policy committee – the TPC – of the member states. This is something some capitals refuse to envisage. “We need to find a creative response to that concern. How we define that line will be one of the issues we will need to tackle in the negotiations”, the Commission’s Ignacio Garcia Bercero told MEPs today.   

On human rights, Garcia Bercero said: “The mandate that the Commission has presented to the member states has very clear references to human rights, has very clear references to trade and sustainable development”.