First Published: 2017-04-23

Rocky days ahead after Turkey referendum
It remains to be seen if the noise, or indeed EU-Turkish relations, will fizzle. Erdogan has not given any in­dications of reconciliation.
Middle East Online

By - Constanze Letsch

Erdogan delivers speech to his supporters at Presidential Palace in Ankara

One of the crucial ques­tions after the narrow win of the “yes” camp in the referendum on constitu­tional change in Turkey is how the country’s relationships with foreign allies will proceed following the bruising election campaign.

Election results show that 51.4% of voters in Turkey agreed to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-time plans to greatly expand his powers and 48.6% voted against him.

Turkey’s relationship with the European Union has reached an all-time low. Its diplomatic links with Germany and the Netherlands have become especially bitter after Erdog­an accused both countries of “Nazi tactics” following the cancellation of referendum campaign rallies in Ger­man and Dutch cities.

Suspicions of election fraud in the April 16 referendum, supported by two major international observation missions from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe, cast further shadows on bilateral ties. Meanwhile, some Turkish gov­ernment officials have signalled a wish to mend relations.

Turkey’s Minister of European Union Affairs Omer Celik, before the vote, said he offered to meet with EU leaders to discuss the future of Turk­ish relations with the bloc. “We have reached the lowest point in the crisis with the EU,” he said. “To get out of that, what I have proposed to them is that a summit is needed.”

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek also struck an appeasing tone, telling Reuters after the refer­endum that bilateral relations with the European Union would “be an area of common interest” following the referendum and that the “noise between Ankara and Europe should die down.”

It remains to be seen if the noise, or indeed EU-Turkish relations, will fizzle. Erdogan has not given any in­dications of reconciliation. Ahead of the crucial vote, he said in a Turkish broadcast that Turkey would review its relationship with the European Union, criticising the fact that his country had been left waiting at the bloc’s door for too long.

In an earlier statement, Erdogan said Turkey was ready to continue economic relations but that politi­cal and administrative issues might have to be reviewed. “We don’t have a problem with investors,” he said at a joint broadcast of CNN Turk and Kanal D in March. “We opened the way for investors and we will con­tinue doing so.”

At the same time, Erdogan’s ag­gressive anti-EU rhetoric was one of his main tactics during the election campaign. Analysts said the Turk­ish president would prefer to sustain economic ties with the bloc via the existing Customs Union but ditch human rights obligations and rules that come with accession talks to the European Union.

Erdogan has said he might put the continuation of the talks to a public vote, possibly putting an end to Tur­key’s membership bid. “We will hold a referendum on April 16,” he said. “After that we might hold a Brexit-like referendum on the negotiations [with the European Union].”

Erdogan threatened to reinstate capital punishment, which would put an immediate end to EU acces­sion talks.

Security analyst and Al-Monitor writer Metin Gurcan suggested that EU governments and Turkey might reach an agreement on how to keep bilateral ties alive. The modernisa­tion of the EU-Turkey Customs Un­ion, in place since December 1995, and close cooperation on counter­terrorism and security issues would provide grounds for sustaining the strained relationship between Brus­sels and Ankara.

A full implementation of the con­tentious refugee deal, sealed in March 2016, would also help to mend Turkish-European ties, Gurcan said. The Turkish government agreed to keep hundreds of thousands of refu­gees and migrants fleeing conflicts and hardship in the Middle East and beyond from going to Europe in ex­change for $3.2 billion in aid and the lifting of short-term visa require­ments on Turkish citizens.

Turkey has criticised the Euro­pean Union for failing to implement the visa liberalisation policy and ac­cused the bloc of dragging its feet on its commitments. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu repeat­edly warned that Turkey would can­cel the agreement if the European Union did not follow up on its prom­ise. On April 14, he told Turkish me­dia that Ankara would push for the implementation of visa-free travel after the referendum.

Human Rights groups have slammed the deal for violating the rights of refugees and for making the European Union blind and mute regarding the suppression of civil rights and freedoms in Turkey.

“This deal was made to protect borders, not refugees,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Am­nesty International, “but [the deal] also bought the silence of Turkey’s allies within the European Union regarding the sharply deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey. It has meant that the realpolitik of pre­venting migration flows of refugees and migrants from Turkey has ren­dered European governments silent to the crackdown on civil society in Turkey that has happened over the past several years but especially af­ter the attempted coup in July last year.”

One Turkish human rights lawyer, who wished to remain anonymous, said the Turkish opposition felt caught between the international community’s failure to apply pun­ishment for human rights violations, Turkey’s targeting of those who dare to criticise Erdogan and ongoing re­pression in the country.

“If Turkey does not comply with decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, for example, what can be done?” he asked. “Turkey could be thrown out of the Council of Europe but that is neither in their interest nor in that of the Turkish op­position.”

An end to accession talks to the European Union would be similarly dismal.

Europe also needs to rely on Tur­key as a vital partner in NATO, espe­cially in security operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s relationship with the mili­tary bloc, however, has been equally strained, especially after Turkey temporarily banned German politi­cians from visiting German troops at the Incirlik airbase in Adana, Turkey.

It is not only the European Union that has been in Erdogan’s line of fire. Turkey’s relationship with an­other NATO ally, the United States, will remain under close scrutiny. Erdogan is expected to meet with US President Donald Trump in May. US-Turkish relations have been un­der immense strain due to Ameri­ca’s support for Kurdish militias in Syria that Turkey classifies as terror­ists and the status of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for the coup attempt of July 2016. Gulen lives in the United States and Turkey has requested he be ex­tradited.

Turkey has mended ties with Moscow but not to the extent An­kara would have liked. Just like the United States, Russia supports the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) sis­ter organisation in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

However, Gurcan argued that the referendum result might strengthen coopera­tion between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both au­thoritarian and populist leaders, es­pecially regarding security strategies in the Middle East.

Many things remain unclear fol­lowing the referendum but it is cer­tain that the upcoming months will prove to be rocky for Turkey and the region.

Constanze Letsch is a contributor to The Arab Weekly in Istanbul.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.


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