Turkish referendum threatens formal divorce with EU17 March 2017 | 02:24 | Deutsche Welle
Turkey's relations with Europe are plunging from bad to worse, raising the prospect of a sharp divorce if constitutional amendments to dramatically expand Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's powers pass a referendum next month.
The diplomatic spat with the Netherlands, triggered after the Turkish government ignored a Dutch refusal to allow its ministers to campaign for the referendum among the diaspora, is symptomatic of the larger crisis plaguing EU-Turkish relations driven by the steady deterioration in the rule of law under Erdogan over the past four years.
A number of European governments have limited or prohibited Turkish ministers from campaigning on their soil for an April 16 referendum on proposed constitutional amendments. A panel of legal experts at the Council of Europe said last week the proposed presidential system represents a "dangerous step backwards" for democracy.
In a calculated move, Erdogan has sought to fuel a crisis to rally nationalist voters ahead of the vote, which according to several polls is leaning towards a "No."
Condemning several European governments for blocking ministers from campaigning, he has likened the Dutch and German governments to "Nazis" and "fascists," sharp words that will be difficult to backpedal from.
Against this backdrop, the Netherlands, France and Germany hold critical elections this year amid a surge in anti-immigrant populist parties.
"While Turkey clearly finds it conducive to whip up nationalist sentiment, there are people also doing this on the European side," said Paul Levin, the Director of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies.
But the larger problem is not the narrow issue of blocking Turkish ministers from attending meetings, said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Ankara now at the Carnegie Europe think thank.
"The point is whether European governments will allow a Turkish government that is suppressing freedoms to campaign for more suppression of freedoms on their soil," he said.
Adding to concern, the referendum will be held under a state of emergency granted in the wake of last July's failed coup attempt, which the government has used to carry out massive purges.
Meanwhile, the opposition in Turkey faces harassment and restrictions on campaigning, Kurdish lawmakers have been thrown in prison, rule of law is deteriorating and freedom of speech and press are under assault.
Today's situation in Turkey is a far cry from heady expectations when Erdogan, who was prime minister up until 2014, and his AK Party came to power in 2002 on a pro-EU platform that promised greater rights, freedom and prosperity.
His Islamist party was able to assemble under its umbrella liberals and democrats who pushed through reforms, paving the way for formal EU accession negotiations to open in 2005.
"The AKP when it first came to power did in fact implement a number of significant and sometimes politically difficult reforms in order to pursue a strategy of moving closer to the European Union," said Levin.
The hope in European capitals at the time was that the EU process would anchor to Turkey to the West and cement democracy. But the reform process stuttered, before dramatically retreating due to a confluence of international and domestic factors.
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