Monday

20th May 2019

Turkish referendum pivotal for EU relations

  • A win in the upcoming Turkish referendum would grant Erdogan more powers. (Photo: Turkish presidency)

Prowling around the stage under the blazing sun, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was getting into his stride at a vast campaign rally on Sunday (9 April) in Izmir, Turkey.

Re-purposing an old Western jibe about the Ottoman Empire, he branded Europe a “sick man”. Then, amongst the loud cheers from the thousands of assembled supporters, he warned that Turkey’s EU membership bid would be “back on the table” after the crucial referendum taking place this weekend.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

On Sunday, citizens go to the polls to vote on a package of constitutional changes with vast ramifications for the country’s future. This comes amid huge social and political tension at home and upheaval in Turkey’s international allegiances, not least its increasingly troubled relationship with Europe.

But with campaigners on both sides anxious about the result remaining very much on a knife-edge, policy makers in Ankara and Brussels say that predicting the future of the relationship between the two capitals is nigh-on impossible.

One European diplomat compared it to “crystal gazing.” Whereas a Turkish official refused to make any predictions, saying that everything lay in the hands of “the highest level decision-makers.” In reality, this means the decision will fall to the mercurial Mr. Erdogan.

The referendum is the culmination of the Turkish president’s long-held desire to overhaul the role that he took up in 2014, after 11 years as prime minister.

The package of 18 amendments to the constitution would formally transform Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential one. It would abolish the role of prime minister and hand Erdogan sweeping new powers to appoint the cabinet, judges and to rule by decree.

Advocates argue that the new system will usher in a new period of stability and prosperity at a time when Turkey has been wracked by terror attacks and a violent attempted coup. All the while, the country has been struggling to reboot the economy after a slowdown in growth and a volatile currency.

Opponents warn that it will hand over unprecedented, unchecked power to a man who has increasingly pursued an intolerant, authoritarian style of leadership.

The indefinite president

According to some analyses, Erdogan could rule until 2034 under the proposed changes.

It is not the first time that Erdogan has tried to usher in these alterations. In parliamentary elections in June 2015, the focus on a presidential system was blamed for his party’s failure to win an outright majority for the first time since it swept to power in 2002.

After the outpouring of nationalism that followed his pugnacious response to the failed coup in July 2016, Erdogan felt confident enough to have another go.

Most observers assumed that the Yes campaign would glide easily to victory, not least because of the extraordinary campaigning conditions. Opposition parties have not voiced fears of large-scale fraud on election day, but there have been complaints of a deeply unfair campaign.

A state of emergency imposed after the coup attempt enabled local governors to limit gatherings and rallies on the grounds of safety.

The co-leaders of the country’s second biggest opposition party are in jail, accused of supporting terrorism, as well as over 100 journalists, with media coverage overwhelming skewed to favour the government's side.

Even with this tilted playing field, polling has suggested a remarkably tight race. Surveys released this week put the Yes vote at 51 to 54 per cent.

Some in the AKP, the conservative Justice and Development party, are worried that “shy” No voters may be hiding their true intentions.

“It’s still critical,” said one party insider, speaking earlier this week. “The atmosphere feels like the June elections — which were our worst ever.”

It is against this backdrop that Turkey plunged headfirst into a series of blazing rows with European countries that still technically view it as a candidate EU country.

Tulip Crisis

The centrepiece was a dispute with Holland, dubbed the Tulip Crisis, that exploded after Dutch ministers refused their Turkish counterparts permission to campaign among expat Turks in the days before the Netherlands held its general elections.

Erdogan described the Dutch government as “Nazi remnants and fascists.” He later accused German chancellor Angela Merkel of employing “Nazi tactics” and warned: “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.”

Such rhetoric was partly aimed at galvanising undecided voters by playing on the deep-seated mistrust of European countries and their intentions towards Turkey - a tactic that seems to have had some success.

But Erdogan also feels genuine grievance at what he sees as the hypocrisy and false promises of the EU.

Although Turkey has faced no concrete punishment for the decline in human rights and freedom of speech, he still bristles at sporadic verbal rebukes.

The key question is whether he is really serious when he talks about formally ending Turkey’s already rapidly fading quest for EU membership.

Arch pragmatist

The Turkish president is an arch pragmatist who has shown himself willing and able to perform swift u-turns, such as last year’s rapprochements with Israel and Russia.

Some analysts believe that his talk of bringing back the death penalty - a move that would instantly guillotine the accession bid - is electoral bluster that will be swept under the carpet after Sunday’s vote.

Others say that Erdogan’s desire to recast the relationship with Europe is real, and that he would genuinely prefer to axe the accession bid and stick to the customs union deal that is already in place.

“What he clearly wants is a transactional relationship with no human rights criteria attached,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Switching to that might be more truthful to the existing dynamic.”

Much depends on the outcome of Sunday’s vote, and whether Erdogan secures a resounding Yes, a narrow victory, or is left reeling from a painful set-back.

Aydintasbas predicted that, if the Yes side wins, Europe will probably be happy to muddle along with the status quo. But she warned: “What we don’t know is whether or not that is acceptable to Erdogan.”

Erdogan's Nazi jibes sour EU relations

Turkish leader Erdogan has accused Germany of Nazi-type behaviour after German towns banned Turkish rallies, in a widening EU backlash that also includes Austria and the Netherlands.

Opinion

How to handle Erdogan's constitutional coup

An EU statement should say that under Erdogan's new constitution, Turkey no longer meets entry criteria and accession talks should be suspended.

Erdogan signals new era in EU relations

Turkish leader dismissed international critics and spoke of reinstating death penalty after referendum win, signalling new era in EU relations.

EU urges Turkey to investigate election fraud

The EU called for a transparent investigation into alleged irregularities during the referendum in Turkey, which gave sweeping powers to president Erdogan. It added that reinstating the death penalty would end the country's EU bid.

News in Brief

  1. Sweden Democrat MEP ousted for revealing sex harassment
  2. 80% of Erasmus students find job within three months
  3. September elections in Austria after Strache scandal
  4. Swiss voters approve tighter gun controls in line with EU
  5. Report: May's fourth Brexit vote a 'retread' of old ideas
  6. Turkey insists on right to drill for oil off Cyprus coast
  7. Anti-Salvini banners become new trend in Italy
  8. EU flies rainbow flag on anti-homophobia day

Opinion

Europe's far-right - united in diversity?

Europe's far-right is set to rise in the next European Parliament election. This vote will not yet allow the populists to build a majority. But it may become another milestone in their process of changing European politics.

Magazine

All about the European Parliament elections 2019

EUobserver's new magazine is meant to help readers prepare for the European Parliament elections, no matter their level of knowledge. You can download and read the entire magazine now.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  2. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us