EU — Turkey relations, walking on thin diplomatic ice

By Katarzyna Sidło, Political Economist, CASE

The current relationship between the EU and Turkey may be getting colder by the day, but the atmosphere surrounding a planned Turkish referendum is very heated indeed. Should the outcome of the referendum be a “yes”, the president of the country would gain extensive powers, including dismissal of the parliament, choosing the majority of senior judges, and enacting a number of laws by decree. In other words, Turkey would turn from a parliamentary republic into a presidential one, something that prompted the EU to raise “serious concerns at the excessive concentration of powers in one office”. The fact that the voting would take place under the state of emergency was mentioned as another major problem.

The referendum is scheduled to take place on April 14th. However, Turkish citizens living abroad have already started casting their ballots, and the process shows how deep the divisions between the “yes” and “no” camps run.

Indeed, last week several people were injured and hospitalized as a result of a fight that broke out between opponents and supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan waiting to vote outside of the Turkish embassy in Brussels. Mr. Erdoğan himself has not been staying on the sidelines, instead adding fuel to the fire. After calling Germany “Nazis” and Netherlands “fascists” for not allowing Turkish politicians to campaign in favor of the change in their respective countries, he announced he shall review all “political and administrative ties” with the EU.

Given Turkey’s dependence on the EU, he has no such wish to review the economic ties between the two. Currently, the EU is Turkey’s most important import (38%) and, more crucially, export (44.5%) partner as well as its number one source of FDI (75.9 € billions, or almost 70% in 2015). However, the EU is unlikely to be satisfied with a solution that attempts to separate economic and political reforms. Admittedly, the European Union did not freeze its pre-accession funding to Turkey and confirmed it will not do so as long as the accession negotiations themselves are not abrogated. However, it will most probably stop sending money to and investing in Turkey should the country turn its back on the EU’s values of democracy and rule of law.

Therefore, we believe that neither side should aim to escalate the conflict. The inflammatory comments and threats carelessly and spuriously thrown by Mr. Erdoğan towards his NATO allies — such as his most recent comment that, should the EU “keep its attitude towards Turkey”, Europeans would not be able to “walk safely on the streets’– are most definitely not helping to de-escalate the situation.

Like many a politician railing at foreign windmills, it is widely believed that Mr. Erdoğan’s animadversions are not aimed at the EU itself as much as they are at undecided Turkish voters, both home and abroad. Nonetheless, clearly Mr. Erdoğan believes not only that they would find such a brutish tone convincing, but also that antagonizing EU leaders is a price worth paying for their support. Even if this strategy works (and recent polls show that this is not necessarily the case), it is a highly risky one for Turkey. Mr. Erdoğan may find that isolation from the EU will hardly be compensated for by increased power at home.

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