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.