Merkel Puts Turkey on Notice

Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan wave national flags as they wait for his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Ankara
Constitutional changes in Turkey could sink membership talks with the EU once and for all. Source: Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in Turkey’s constitutional referendum could spell the end to Ankara’s long-stalled bid to become a member of the European Union.

In a carefully worded joint statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned the Turkish government on Monday that as a candidate for EU membership, it is obligated to respect European standards of democracy and the rule of law.

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel pointed to the deep reservations expressed by the Council of Europe, an international human rights organization, about the constitutional changes and the manner in which the referendum was conducted.

Election observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said the state of emergency in place in Turkey since a failed coup last year resulted in an unlevel playing field during the referendum campaign.

In effect, the German government has put Turkey on notice that its long-stalled bid to join the European Union hangs in the balance should it refuse to address European concerns about the constitutional changes, which abolish the office of the prime minister and centralize power under President Erdogan.

“We don’t want to punish the Turkish people, that would be false. But we also don’t want to help finance Erdogan's anti-democratic agenda. ”

Cem Özdemir, Green Party chief

Ms. Merkel and Mr. Gabriel, however, are not prepared to close the door entirely on Turkey. They said Germany respects the right of the Turkish people to decide on their constitutional system and called for a “respectful dialogue” moving forward.

European and German parliamentarians, on the other hand, were less diplomatic. Manfred Weber, the head of the conservative European People’s Party in the European Parliament, called on EU leaders to “clear the table and decide to end membership talks with Turkey” at their summit in April.

Diplomatic sources in Brussels, however, told Handelsblatt that the EU wants to wait and see how the situation develops in Turkey in the wake of the constitutional referendum.

During the campaign, Mr. Erdogan raised the prospect of also holding referendum to re-institute the death penalty, which was abolished in 2004 as part of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.

“A reintroduction of the death penalty would effectively end the [membership] negotiations,” Cem Özdemir, the head of the opposition Green Party in Germany, told Handesblatt.

Mr. Özdemir, the son of Turkish migrants, said the European Union and Germany should re-evaluate financial assistance for Turkey in response to the referendum result. Aid money should go exclusively to civil society organizations and pro-democratic groups, he said.

“We don’t want to punish the Turkish people; that would be false,” Mr. Özdemir told Handelsblatt. “But we also don’t want to help finance Erdogan’s anti-democratic agenda.”

Membership talks with Turkey have been on ice since Mr. Erdogan launched a sweeping political crackdown in the wake of a failed military coup last year. In December, the EU member states said they would not open new areas of negotiation under the “prevailing circumstances.”

Mr. Özdemir said membership talks with Turkey would remain in a state of limbo now that Mr. Erdogan is set gain even more power under the constitutional changes.

“Turkey cannot become a member of the European Union with the oriental despot Erdogan,” Mr. Özdemir said.

Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. Ozan Demircan is a correspondent in Switzerland. To contact the authors:,

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