The weakest link in EU-Turkey relations

The weakest link in EU-Turkey relations

The regression in relations between Turkey and the European Union has started to slow down following the April 16 referendum in Turkey when President Tayyip Erdoğan got what he wanted: a shift from a parliamentary to an executive presidential form of government.

Following the words of Christian Berger, the EU mission chief in Ankara, to the Hürriyet Daily News on May 9 in which he said both Turkey and the EU were “destined to find a way forward,” President Erdoğan said on May 9 that Turkey was “willing to continue” its relations with the union on a “win-win basis.”

Those words were quite different from Erdoğan’s remarks during the referendum campaign, when he was telling people that he could put Turkey’s membership application to a public vote by making it the subject of another referendum as well.

Similarly, in a statement after the referendum results were announced, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was not breaking off relations with Turkey. That is probably not only because of a migrant deal between the EU and Turkey that was reached with the orchestration of Merkel in late 2015 and early 2016.

Germany, which hosts more than 3 million people whose origins lie in Turkey, some of whom have German citizenship, values Turkey’s strategic position. And it’s not only Merkel, but many other European politicians are now aware that pushing Turkey away and trying to corner it because of rights violations and a regression in the quality of the judiciary and media freedoms could only make things worse for Turkish people, Turkey, Turkish-EU relations and the EU.

Turkish EU Minister Ömer Çelik has been carrying out low-profile discussions for the last few days prior to a meeting between Erdoğan and the two top EU officials, Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, and Donald Tusk, the head of the European Council, at a NATO summit in Brussels on May 25.

Çelik has been promoting the idea of restructuring the relations on the basis of “mutual interests.”

Those might be small indications of a better potential in relations, but it is not practical to expect a major breakthrough or a major nosedive in Turkish-EU ties before the German elections on Sept. 24, since it might affect Merkel’s performance at ballot box. And despite all the war of words, Erdoğan would like to continue working with a counterpart whom he has known for many years.

Actually, it gives both Turkey and the EU a good four to five months to mend fences and prepare for the next phase, if there will be any. By the way, Erdoğan needs that time to restructure the rank and file of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) of which he is set to be re-elected as chairman at an emergency congress on May 21

There could be one major factor which could ruin the relations in this delicate period – a step to reinstate the death penalty in the Turkish legal system through a parliamentary vote or a referendum.

Following Juncker’s reiteration on May 8 that reinstating the death penalty could close the EU’s doors to Turkey, Merkel said on May 9 that if the Turkish government were to put the death penalty to a public vote, she would not permit Turkish citizens with German dual citizenship to vote on German soil or allow any campaigning for the vote on German soil.

Erdoğan has been bringing the issue to the public agenda since the July 15, 2016, military coup attempt which was allegedly masterminded by Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-resident Islamist preacher who used to be an ally of Erdoğan. Supporting Erdoğan is Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who has backed the reinstitution of capital punishment for a long time; Bahçeli urged the AK Parti on May 9 once again to submit the bill to parliament immediately. The MHP’s support, however, is enough to take it to a referendum only. That’s why Erdoğan has to put pressure on Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to support the death penalty so that it can be approved in parliament without the need for a referendum. But that could severely damage the CHP, which is not in great shape after the April 16 referendum due to in-house conflicts.

Ultimately, the weakest link in Turkey-EU relations will be questions about reinstating the death penalty.