Turkey's Vote Could Mean the End of a Courtship to Join the EU – New York Times
BERLIN — The long flirtation may finally be over.
For decades, the European Union dangled the possibility of membership before an eager suitor in Turkey. But it was never a perfect match. Too many Europeans had reservations about having a predominantly Muslim state, with porous and volatile borders and a checkered human rights record, come inside the tent. The interest was often unrequited, leaving Ankara feeling bitter, resentful and disrespected.
The result of Turkey’s referendum on Sunday could snuff what was left of that European Union-Turkey courtship, several analysts said on Monday. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed a victory that strengthens his already extraordinary, near-authoritarian powers.
Depending on the view, the result either fulfilled the worst suspicions the Europeans had harbored of Turkey for so long, or it was the unavoidable outcome of their snub. In any case, the question now is what kind of relationship it will be.
Austria’s conservative foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, urged Europeans to recognize at last that it was fruitless to pursue closer ties with Turkey.
“End the talks on joining and work on a neighborhood treaty,” Mr. Kurz wrote on Twitter. “After the referendum it can’t just be business as usual. We finally need some honesty in the relationship.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the influential leader of liberals in the European Parliament and a former prime minister of Belgium, said “the only logical conclusion” of Sunday’s referendum was for the European Union to “stop accession talks immediately” and rethink its relationship with Turkey.
But the calculations may be shifting for both sides. On Monday, Mr. Erdogan appeared almost blasé about accession talks with the bloc, saying that it did not matter if they were suspended, as long as Turkey was informed, and that Turkey could hold a referendum on them, if necessary.
“For 54 years, they made us wait at the gates of the E.U.,” he said, according to the state-run Anadolu news agency. “We sit down, discuss, we will make another vote of confidence for that, too.”
For Turkey’s leader, the lure of near-absolute power, authoritarian swagger and the bucking up of nationalist pride now seems more enticing than the potential benefits of membership in a bloc over which he in any case holds substantial leverage, not least as it still depends on him to choke off the flow of migrants to Europe.
The European Union — its unity threadbare, and itself struggling with members, like Poland and Hungary, dominated by strong leaders increasingly tempted by authoritarian impulses — may be losing its bloom.
It was telling that as he celebrated his victory, Mr. Erdogan taunted the bloc with comments about restoring the death penalty in Turkey. That would be such a basic violation of European rights documents that have been signed by Turkey that the union would be virtually compelled to freeze talks on joining the bloc.
“We thought the talk of the death penalty would end with the referendum,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels and a former Turkish diplomat. “What it may mean is that Erdogan wants to transform the European Union relationship with Turkey into an exclusively economic one.”
But such a turn would hold risks for both sides. Ignoring political matters for purely economic dealings could further weaken the bloc, Mr. Ulgen said. So, he added, “the E.U. may not be willing to reciprocate.” That would leave Turkey out in the cold.
While conservative politicians appeared more determined to freeze membership talks after the vote, center-left politicians focused on the need to continue promoting democratic values and, in effect, to not give up on trying to shape a like-minded Turkey.
Kati Piri, a Dutch legislator who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Turkey, pointed to the narrowness of Mr. Erdogan’s victory, noting that millions of Turks had voted against his constitutional changes and that Europe should not forsake those people.
“I will continue to stand by all those fighting for democracy and fundamental rights in Turkey,” Ms. Piri said in a statement. “The E.U. should never close the door” to the millions “who chose for a different future for their country.”
That message was evident even in the cautious European statements issued after the vote. Several countries in the bloc said they would align their reactions with the findings of European monitors and the Council of Europe, a body that acts as a kind of initial stage toward union membership.
At a news conference in Ankara on Monday, international observers were cautious but concluded that several irregularities in the referendum campaign had made for an unlevel playing field.
“In general, the referendum did not live up to Council of Europe standards,” said Cezar Florin Preda of the council’s parliamentary assembly. “The legal framework was inadequate.”
Tana de Zulueta, the leader of the European election observers, said that “the ‘yes’ campaign dominated the media coverage and this, along with restrictions on the media, the arrests of journalists and the closure of media outlets, reduced voters’ access to a plurality of views.”
Germany, which is home to about three million Turks, the largest diaspora in Europe, issued an unusual joint statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a center-rightist, and her deputy, Sigmar Gabriel, also the foreign minister and a Social Democrat of the center-left.
They emphasized how much responsibility now rested with Mr. Erdogan to mend Turkey’s deep rifts and to include the opposition in coming talks and decisions. Bilateral and European talks must also address European allegations of abandoning democracy, their statement added.
Ms. Merkel is arguably in the most delicate position of any European leader, having pushed for an agreement last year whereby Turkey agreed to harbor the world’s largest population of Syrian war refugees in exchange for billions of euros from the European Union.
Mr. Ulgen, the former Turkish diplomat, noted that this deal had given Turkey considerable leverage over German and European affairs. That leverage has lessened, he argued, as the flow of migrants has slowed, and it may erode further after Germany votes in national elections in September as Ms. Merkel seeks a fourth term.
Still, for now, Mr. Erdogan could react to any freezing of negotiations with the bloc by escalating and “pulling the plug on the refugee deal,” Mr. Ulgen said.
Commentators across Europe voiced the expected concern over Turkey’s future but, like their governments, seemed to lack solutions to problems that have long plagued Turkey’s off-again-on-again courtship with Europe.
“Turkey is moving away from Europe to align itself in the Middle Eastern way of doing politics, the more or less tempered authoritarian mode of government,” wrote the left-leaning French newspaper Le Monde. It argued that the referendum marked the end of a “cycle” in which Turkey made important democratic and economic progress in the late 20th century and into the 21st.
Michael Thumann of the German weekly Die Zeit, an expert on Turkey and Islam and a former correspondent there, said the referendum raised questions about how Europe addresses its internal divisions, its neighbors and migration.
“Do we treat Turkey like Central Asian states?” he asked, noting that Europe deals with authoritarian governments throughout that region. “Is it legitimate for democratic governments to make deals with authoritarian systems to regulate a refugee crisis?”
In general, Mr. Thumann noted, the mass movement of migrants is one factor that ought to spur a debate about who is allowed into Europe.
Germany does not have an immigration law and a clear path to citizenship for those who arrive seeking asylum. Granting asylum should be limited to true political cases, Mr. Thumann said, with a clear separate law determining who can immigrate, and how.
Fears of a greater influx of Turks in Europe have long prompted particularly the Christian center-right parties on the Continent — like Ms. Merkel’s — to keep them at arm’s length and to dither over closer ties.
In November, months after a failed coup in Turkey, Ms. Merkel rejected opening a new chapter in talks for the country to enter the bloc, citing her longstanding position that Turkey has values incompatible with the European nations it would be joining.
Her objections to Turkish membership preceded her election in 2005. In August of that year, her conservative bloc in Germany circulated a letter to European partners arguing that “we are firmly convinced that accepting Turkey would politically, economically and socially overtax the E.U. and endanger the European integration process.”
Instead, Ms. Merkel proffered a “privileged partnership.” That may now be the best either side will get.
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