Turkey and the EU cannot risk a break up

Turkey and the EU cannot risk a break up

Leaving aside the “Yes” and “No” debate, let’s consider the areas that sustained the most damage in the run-up to the constitutional referendum held in Turkey last month. It would be fair to place Turkey-EU relations at the top of this list.  

Bilateral crises with certain EU countries, such as the Holland crisis, hit headlines ahead of the April 16 referendum. The institution of the EU was one of the topics that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan allocated the widest space during the campaign. In this sense, he not only conducted his campaign against the “No” front but also against the EU front. 

Erdoğan used harsh language against the EU ahead of April 16. He called the EU “the sick man of today” in a rally in Bursa on April 6. He described the day of the referendum as “the day when Turkey will rise like a sun over Europe” in a rally in Istanbul on April 8. There are several other examples of such rhetoric.

Will Turkey-EU relations be able to withstand such severe discourse?

If we look at developments after April 16, even if Turkey’s EU accession talks have lost their sincerity, it is possible to say that relations have a resilience that can bear such severe turbulence. Ultimately, Brussels has probably reached the conclusion that it cannot risk a break up, no matter how severe Erdoğan’s discourse may get. 

On the evening of April 16, top EU officials issued a joint statement saying they had “taken note” of the reported results of the referendum. They said they were “awaiting the assessment of the OSCE/ODIHR International Observation Mission, also with regard to alleged irregularities.”

This expressed a clearly distant stance that Ankara would not have been happy about, refraining from recognizing the results and linking the EU’s final stance with the final report of the OSCE’S observers. 

However, EU High Representative of for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, after meeting Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on April 29 in Malta, said “We respect the result of the referendum even if we acknowledge that there are appeals ongoing or foreseen.”

In the same statement, Mogherini also said Brussels expected the implementation of the constitutional amendments to be conducted in the light of the OSCE final report. 

But the heart of the matter is that Brussels refrained from recognizing the results of the referendum on the evening of April 16. Over the next 13 days, the EU merely switched from the position of “taking note” to the position of “respecting.” 

There are also new factors in the EU stance. For instance, it has said it expects “the Turkish authorities to respect all political positions, including those who supported the camp that lost the referendum.” 

This shows that the 48.59 percent who voted “No” will hold a significant place in the EU’s opinion of Turkey in the new term.  However, it is doubtful that such a position will affect Erdoğan’s style of conducting business in Turkey. 

Still, it is possible to say that since April 16 Erdoğan may have been stepping back from a course that could have led to a complete break with the EU. The president, who blasted the EU almost every day during the referendum campaign, has since adopted a more careful language, even if only partially. 

The first sign of this came with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s statement to Mogherini during the Malta meeting on April 29 that Ankara remains committed to the full-membership target. One day before this, Erdoğan’s spokesman, İbrahim Kalın, also said “full membership of the EU remains a strategic target for Turkey.”

Erdoğan himself, despite suggesting that another referendum may be held on whether to continue Turkey’s accession talks,” has also started giving relatively moderate messages. For instance, he has moved from vowing “We no longer need their criteria” during a rally in Bursa before April 16 to noting on April 29, during a speech at TÜMSİAD, that: “In last month’s figures, both in exports and imports, Germany was in the top place for Turkey. This is a situation that both countries should consider carefully. It means we need each other.”

Yesterday was May 9, marked as Europe Day. We must take whatever consolation we can from the fact that Turkey-EU relations have not yet completely snapped.