Recep Tayyip Erdogan must want to forget a certain date: October 3, 2004. On that Sunday evening, the then-Turkish prime minister was honored with the Quadriga award in Berlin as the “European of the Year.”
Ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder praised the “outstanding achievement” of his guest and honored him as a “major reformist.” With democratic reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty, Mr. Erdogan had paved the way for EU accession negotiations, Mr. Schröder said. Turkey, Mr. Erdogan noted later in his speech, was a “part of the European community of values.”
That was then. The Turkish leader’s view of Europe is radically different today. It is a “rotten continent,” populated by fascists and Nazi holdovers, Mr. Erdogan, now president of Turkey, said in an election campaign speech before the constitutional referendum on Sunday.
If Mr. Erdogan’s proposed changes win, he said he wants to completely rethink the EU accession negotiations. Parliament would then vote on whether the death penalty should be reinstated, according to Mr. Erdogan. The European of the Year has become the anti-European of the decade.
On Sunday, 58 million Turkish voters will decide whether to abandon their parliamentary system and become a presidential republic. The 18 amendments to the Turkish constitution also include the abolition of military courts. The main aspect of the constitutional change, however, is the reorganization of the executive branch of the government.
The president would remain a representative figure as head of state, but would also assume the function of prime minister and would be subject to limited parliamentary oversight. The president’s power would be further enhanced by not only dominating the executive branch but also by being allowed to preside over a political party, which is generally expected to hold the majority in parliament.
The door would be closed but not locked.
Critics view Erdogan’s proposed presidential system as a step backwards for democracy in the country. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, an expert committee on constitutional reforms, recently said Turkey was moving toward becoming an autocracy and a one-person regime. Victory for Mr. Erdogan in the referendum would certainly be a blow to Turkey’s relations with the European Union. In the coming weeks, both sides will have to decide whether they want to continue with the EU accession process. Negotiations on closer economic cooperation in their customs union are also in question.
In Brussels, leaders are preparing themselves for an Erdogan victory. They point to massive interference of the opposition by government authorities. Michael Link, the head of the OSCE’s Election Observation Mission, noted that the “No” camp was restricted in its events and discriminated against by unilateral reporting in the state-controlled media.
EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn are expected to make a joint statement on Monday after the referendum results and election observer reports become available. They are unlikely to announce any direct consequences, according to Brussels insiders, but they may issue a warning if the constitutional reforms are implemented.
As a result, Turkey could lose its status as a candidate for accessing the European Union. Foreign ministers are set to meet in Malta at the end of April. Austria is reportedly no longer the only country calling for a halt to Turkey’s accession negotiations, as it was in the most recent round of discussions in December. But many governments are hesitant to freeze or break off the negotiations. For them, Turkey is too important because of its geostrategic situation. It could play a key role in resolving the Syrian conflict, for example.
Knut Fleckenstein, a foreign affairs expert with the Social Democratic Party, is calling for the negotiations to be suspended. “The talks could be stopped but later resumed if the circumstances in Turkey should change,” he told Handelsblatt, adding that during this time, no EU money would flow into the country as adjustment assistance. “The door would be closed but not locked,” he said.
If Mr. Erdogan were to insult EU member states again in the flush of victory or actually announce a vote on the reintroduction of the death penalty, they might agree to Mr. Fleckenstein’s approach. From their perspective, the death penalty is a red line, which, if crossed, would end accession negotiations. Some insiders in Brussels question whether this is Mr. Erdogan’s goal.
The Turkish president’s reaction to the election outcome is also likely to impact discussions on a further deepening of the customs union between the EU and Turkey. According to a decision by the European Commission and Turkey, the tariff-free trade of industrial goods between the two areas is to be extended to agricultural goods and services. According to estimates by the Turkish Ministry of Economic Affairs, an additional trading volume of around €40 billion ($42 billion) is involved. Several EU countries, however, are reluctant to grant the necessary negotiating mandate to the Commission.
“As long as Erdogan insults us and calls us Nazis, we don’t need to talk about the customs union,” said one EU diplomat. The talks on this issue at the Council level are also on ice, just as plans for a Turkey-EU summit.
On the other hand, the European Union wants to hold on to its refugee pact with Turkey – and is confident that Mr. Erdogan will not end the year-old agreement. Turkey needs the bloc’s billions in aid, according to sources in Brussels.
The fact that Mr. Erdogan is rolling back democratic reforms introduced under his leadership and considering reintroducing the death penalty, which he had previously abolished, is no contradiction for his critics. To them, Mr. Erdogan was never a European at heart. He had merely taken advantage of the accession process to curb the political influence of the military, using the EU’s reform requirements as an excuse. Now that the power of the generals is broken, Mr. Erdogan doesn’t need Europe anymore.
Relations with the European Union are an important economic factor for Turkey. About half of its exports go to the bloc, which also accounts for most of its imports. Its foreign investments are also predominantly from EU countries. Turkey’s most important economic partner in Europe is Germany. Around 6,700 companies in Turkey do business with Europe’s largest economy. For investors, Turkey is attractive not just because of its large internal market, young, spend-happy population, but also as a production location for exports.
It was the accession to the customs union in 1996 and the start of the EU accession negotiations that prompted many German entrepreneurs to get involved in Turkey. The prospect of a European future is also important for the Turkish economy.
“I can’t imagine Turkey distancing itself from the EU,” said Zümüt Imamoglu, the chief economist of the Turkish industrial association Tüsiad. “The bridge to Europe must not break,” he said, adding that Europe is the most important “anchor” for Turkey. “This is why we believe it is important to stick to this vision for the future, whether it is full membership or a different kind of integration.”
For Ms. Imamoglu, the negotiations on expanding the customs union for agricultural products and services would be an important step. “And the government knows this,” she said. Ms. Imamoglu believes that halting the accession talks, as some EU politicians are proposing, is wrong. “If we now stop the negotiations, there is no longer any chance of improvement,” she said, adding that especially in this situation, it is important to maintain the contacts. “We should intensify exchanges. ”
But it’s not just Turkey that needs Europe. The European Union is also dependent on Turkey, which, as the neighbor of the war-torn Syria, has accommodated hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who otherwise might seek asylum in Europe. Just over a year ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded a refugee pact with Mr. Erdogan, spelling out this agreement. In return, Turkey is to receive €6 billion, which will directly fund refugee projects. In addition, the European Union intended to abolish the visa requirements for Turkish citizens wishing to enter the bloc. The visa project is paused because Turkey refuses to soften its anti-terrorism laws, which the European Union fears are applied too broadly.
Despite that, Turkey seems to have adhered to its obligations under the refugee agreement so far. The number of people arriving on the Greek Aegean Islands from the Turkish coast remains low. From the beginning of this year through April 10, about 4,500 refugees and migrants arrived on the islands, compared to 91,000 in the previous year.
However, there has been little progress on the return of refugees and migrants from EU countries to Turkey. The agreement provides that the European Union can return all people who enter the Greek islands illegally through Turkey and do not receive asylum. According to official data, only 993 people have been sent back to Turkey on this basis. But this is not Turkey’s fault. It’s rather the slow asylum procedures in the Greek islands. This is just one example of how dependent the European Union and Turkey are on each other.
Ozan Demircan has been part of Handelsblatt’s investigative team. Gerd Höhler is a Handelsblatt correspondent based in Athens, Greece. Till Hoppe is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Brussels. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org