EU referendum is a possibility in Turkey

EU referendum is a possibility in Turkey

The question of whether Turkey could really bring back capital punishment has now been followed by the question of whether Turkey could really hold a referendum on the European Union.

If the latter question had been put to me a month ago, I would have said “no,” just as I would have once ruled out the possibility of reinstituting the death penalty. 

I have been proven wrong recently for ruling out a number of developments that ended up happening. I did not expect Brexit to happen, just as I did not expect Donald Trump to be elected. My only consolation is that I am not alone in having made the wrong bets. 

From now on, expecting anything to happen - even the unimaginable – seems like a fair bet to me.

France could succumb to the far right and Marine Le Pen could well get elected in the presidential election next spring. The Dutch, who I still believe have one of the most democratic, pluralistic and tolerant cultures in Europe, could vote for a racist and xenophobic party in the general elections next year. 

By the same token, Turkey could reinstitute capital punishment, which would likely put an end to its EU accession process. Or it could take the EU membership issue to a referendum, which might end up with the public expressing a clear wish to end the relationship.

Many think it would be irrational for Turkey to land a deadly blow on its membership process. But rationality is not currently a guiding force in the world. If it was, we would not have seen the Brits - known to be among the most rational societies with solid common sense - vote to leave the EU. 

Who is to blame for all this? Certainly not the ordinary citizen. Rather, we should point the finger at short-sighted politicians. Playing to the fears of voters is easier than addressing the problems that generated those fears in the first place. That creates a snowball effect. We all get carried away by irresponsible rhetoric, and nobody expects it could end up leading to bloodshed. 

In other words, we currently have a global phenomenon. Not only is Turkey not immune to this phenomenon, one might even say it has been a trendsetter.

In the medium to long term, it might look against Turkey’s interests to severe ties with the EU. But in the short term it makes sense to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to galvanize populist sentiments to secure a transition to the presidential system. 

Many think Turkey must remain anchored to the EU for economic reasons, particularly as improving the economic conditions of millions of citizens turned them into loyal voters for Erdoğan. But the negative consequences of ending the membership process will only be felt in the longer term. True, Turkey already suffers economic difficulties, partly due to complications in its relations with Europe. But Erdoğan can easily buy time in the short term by exploiting the fear factor, the anti–European mood, and asking voters to unite behind him against “internal and external enemies,” at the expense of suffering economic losses.  

Suppose Ankara’s EU accession process ends due to a reinstitution of the death penalty or a referendum.

Once Erdoğan secures the presidential system, he can always sit down with the EU to negotiate a new form of relationship that is transactional rather than transformational. After all, did most of the Europeans not want to keep Turkey outside the inner family circle and at an arm’s length?

Will such an arrangement be in the long-term interest of the EU and Turkey? No. But that doesn’t matter. We live in the age of political carpe diem.