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Erdogan's Referendum Victory Puts Turkey on Collision Course With Europe

Wall Street Journal

By Emre Peker and Laurence Norman

16 April 2017

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's victory in Sunday's referendum could pave the way for pragmatic cooperation with the U.S. while setting him on a collision course with Europe, officials said.

Mr. Erdogan on Sunday night declared victory during phone calls to congratulate his allies in the ruling party and an allied nationalist party, according to the state Anadolu news agency. Mr. Erdogan's opposition vowed to challenge the results.

Voters approved constitutional amendments that will vastly expand Mr. Erdogan's power, giving him license to politically transform a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member that the U.S. and Europe have come to rely as a partner in the fight against Islamic State, the Syrian war and efforts to curb the flow of migrants from the Middle East to the European Union.

American and European officials repeatedly expressed worries over the potential impact of the referendum on Turkey, especially with regards to the rule of law, human rights and free speech. But they also calibrated their critiques, stressing their longstanding alliance with Ankara and promising to support Turkey as it fights terrorism and hosts millions of refugees.

"We are concerned about the quality of Turkey's democracy," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday. "These are discussions that we have on a somewhat regular basis with the Turkish government. Because we're strong allies and partners, we can have those kinds of conversations."

Officially, Turkey's Western allies didn't take sides over the referendum but in a statement last month, senior EU officials expressed their concerns about excessive concentration of powers with the president if the changes took place. They also flagged concerns about holding such a key ballot during Turkey's current state of emergency.

Western and Turkish officials said a victory for Mr. Erdogan could herald improved working relations with his American counterpart, while further straining ties with the EU.

"On NATO, U.S. relations there will definitely be no change. Turkey's regional power and position with its allies is clear," said Reha Denemec, a chief adviser to Mr. Erdogan. With regards to the EU, desire to join the bloc isn't as strong as it was a decade ago, he said, adding, "Now, we act together when national interests align."

A steady drumbeat of criticism from Brussels and EU governments over Turkey's alleged human-rights abuses and the erosion of the rule of law regularly strains relations, and the tensions could mount as Mr. Erdogan consolidates power.

"Our concern is that Erdogan will just rush ahead and...go towards what is basically one-man rule," a Western diplomat said. "Let's not sugarcoat it."

Mr. Erdogan and his supporters dismiss the allegation. Transferring executive authority from parliament to the president, they argue, will end political instability and strengthen Turkey.

Still, a power-grab would undermine Ankara's pledge to meet EU criteria to qualify for membership.

"I view the current referendum as a referendum on the EU accession, because a country with such a constitution could never join the EU," said Kati Piri, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who handles relations with Turkey.

For the Trump administration, a strengthened Mr. Erdogan might mean securing an agreement on a plan to oust Islamic State from Raqqa in Syria, the extremist jihadist group's de facto capital. The U.S. has long relied on Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey considers terrorists to fight Islamic State, stoking tensions among the NATO allies, but his referendum victory could give Mr. Erdogan latitude to be more flexible, American officials said.

The course of relations with the European Union looks more complicated. Ankara is angry that more than a year after agreeing on a migration deal with Mr. Erdogan's government, the bloc hasn't provided visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish nationals or accelerated Turkey's stalled accession talks to join the EU. European officials say both steps depend on political reforms at home.

Frustrated with what he sees as European insincerity and foot-dragging, Mr. Erdogan has called for a plebiscite on whether to continue membership talks with Brussels.

Some policy makers see a glimmer of hope from the outcome. Having obtained his longstanding political ambition of a presidential system, it is possible Mr. Erdogan will now seek to build bridges at home and abroad, Western diplomats say.

With Turkey's economy slowing, Ankara has an incentive to bolster ties with Brussels to clinch an expanded EU customs union agreement. Turkish exporters send nearly half their goods to the bloc.

In recent months, Mr. Erdogan has slammed the West for its slow response to last July's military coup and repeatedly threatened to tear up a migration deal with Europe that has helped stem the flow of Syrian refugees into the bloc.

He charged the EU with meddling in Turkey's internal affairs and advocated reinstating the death penalty, which was abolished to secure EU accession talks. After European bans on Turkish ministers seeking to rally the 'yes' vote abroad, Mr. Erdogan accused Germany and the Netherlands of Nazi-era practices.

The moves earned a rebuke from across the EU, and fueled fresh calls to freeze Turkey's largely stalemated membership negotiations. The European Parliament has already called for that.

But European officials say they would prefer to leave the ball in Mr. Erdogan's court on accession talks. Brussels, a senior EU official said, would only take the initiative in the short-term if Turkey reinstates the death penalty or clearly unpicks the refugee deal.

Over time, however, further moves by Mr. Erdogan to clip an independent media and judiciary could cause a fresh crisis in ties. "With a 'yes' vote his power will officially further consolidate," said Marietje Schaake, an EU lawmaker. "A turning point is inevitable."

--Dion Nissenbaum in Washington contributed to this article.