The crowd of diehard supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cheered at a referendum-eve rally in the Umraniye district of Istanbul when Turkey’s Islamist leader called on them to drive the West, as well as terrorists, mad by voting “yes” in the next day’s plebiscite.
“Let’s pass such a reform that the West goes crazy,” he said.
Western officials may not be going crazy, but they are alarmed by Sunday’s vote. The slim majority that backed Erdogan’s bid to dramatically expand his executive power has set Ankara and the European Union on a collision course, European officials fear. On Monday, Erdogan challenged Brussels with a renewed demand that Turks be allowed visa-free travel across Europe and a threat to restore the death penalty.
Greek officials have drafted emergency plans to cope with a new migrant crisis. They predict Erdogan won’t be cautious about how he governs in the wake of the referendum, and will opt to pick fights with the EU in a bid to rally his divided country. Sunday’s “yes” vote for constitutional change marks the biggest shift in the country’s governance since the founding of modern Turkey in 1923.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned that restoring the death penalty is a “red line” for the EU. He and other senior European officials say reinstating capital punishment would end Turkey’s long-standing bid to join the EU.
On Monday, Erdogan shrugged off EU objections, while slamming a European monitoring group’s criticism of Sunday’s plebiscite. On Turkey’s EU candidacy, Erdogan told a crowd of loyalists: “It is also not very important for us either. … They have made us wait at the gates of the EU for 54 years. So, we will sit and talk and hold a referendum on that, too.”
EU concerns growing
Most European leaders have been keen to avoid stoking Erdogan’s wrath and have been circumspect in reacting to Sunday’s vote, hoping that Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Mehmet Simsek, was right when he predicted Monday the “noise” between Ankara and Europe would die down soon.
Speaking Monday to Reuters, Simsek said the focus would be on areas of shared interest between Europe and Turkey. The British Foreign Office said it was concerned by the conduct of the vote, but that it would remain an ally of Turkey provided Ankara “enacts these constitutional changes in a way that sustains democracy.”
Behind the scenes in EU capitals, the mood is gloomy. Gianni Pittella, the Italian leader of the socialist bloc in the European parliament, said his lawmakers will discuss whether to veto next week a proposal for visa-free travel for Turks. “We’ve always been very reluctant to ensure a visa-free regime to Turkey as Ankara does not match the democratic criteria,” he said in a statement. “Now after the referendum, our concerns are even bigger.”
Pittella said the referendum amounted to “yet another decisive step away from Europe.” He called for the termination of Turkey’s EU accession talks, because “with such a constitution, Turkey cannot join the EU.” Erdogan, he warned, “is increasingly turning Turkey into a personal authoritarian regime.”
Last Friday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned Ankara would tear up the migration deal formed with the EU last year if visa-free travel for Turks is not granted. With the 2016 migration agreement, the Turkish government promised to help curb the flood of migrants into Europe from its territory in return for visa-free travel for Turks to Europe. Turkey also received enhanced EU aid to cope with Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
“If we get a negative response from the EU, we have the right to re-evaluate and suspend all of these agreements,” Cavusoglu told a local broadcaster.
Visa-free travel isn’t the only issue on which Turkey and the EU are at loggerheads. Brussels has demanded modifications to the country’s anti-terrorism law, which it deems as overarching. The Turkish government has used the law against Erdogan’s domestic critics, including journalists.
Predictions of restraint
Relations between Turkey and the EU deteriorated sharply in the run-up to Sunday’s referendum. There were rhetorical clashes over Turkey’s spying activities against Turkish dissidents in Europe. Separately, European officials objected to referendum campaigning across the continent by Turkish ministers seeking expatriate votes. Erdogan repeatedly accused the German and Dutch governments of acting like Nazis after they banned referendum campaign rallies by Turkish officials on security grounds.
“It’s high time we disarmed verbally. The Nazi insults are unbearable,” German Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
Senior Greek officials say they have drawn up detailed emergency plans to cope with a new refugee crisis. They say their cash-strapped country would find it hard to contain the financial fallout from a renewed flood of asylum-seekers, and would be plunged deeper into debt by an influx. That scenario, in turn, would put pressure on Brussels to assist with funding.
Some analysts believe that Erdogan, for all his threats, will be forced to show restraint both domestically and in relations with Europe.
“This large an opposition is hard for Erdogan to ignore,” wrote analysts Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament, and Merve Tahiroglu, both with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based research institution.
“He may claim to have won a slight majority, but he lost in five of Turkey’s six largest cities, including its economic center Istanbul, where he has never lost an election since becoming mayor in 1994,” they wrote. “He also lost in Turkey’s other economic powerhouses — including the capital Ankara and Izmir — suggesting the country’s poor economic performance could become his weak spot in the days and weeks to come.”