scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Turkey and Europe reach a moment of reckoning

A referendum in Turkey would allow President Recep Tayypip Erdogan would allow him to run for another term.

ISTANBUL — Confetti and fireworks greeted Recep Tayypip Erdogan when he returned to Turkey in December 2004, with the good news that his country had been invited to start talks to join the European Union.

Addressing cheering crowds in the capital, Erdogan, then the prime minister, said the invitation was a sign of Turkey’s growing international clout.

After decades of effort, Turkey ‘‘will take its rightful place among modern and civilized countries,’’ he said at the time. ‘‘From now on, democracy will have a different meaning, and human rights and freedoms will be practiced in a more meaningful manner.’’

But 13 years later, Turkey and Europe are locked in the bitterest of feuds, marked by threats, fiery epithets, and petty slights that could mark the end of Turkey’s ambitious national project to gain coveted privileges as a full member of the European Union. Erdogan, who is now the president, suggested as much last month, telling CNN Turk that while Turkey could maintain its economic relations with Europe, ‘‘we may have the need to review ties at the political and administrative level.’’

Beyond the heated rhetoric, both parties have much to lose from their fight, which threatens to further isolate Europe and Turkey at a moment when both are turning inward and succumbing to xenophobia and nationalist rhetoric, analysts said. The breakup would leave the European Union bereft of a Muslim-majority partner that might have served as a hopeful sign of inclusion and diversity, including for millions of Muslim immigrants living in Europe, and a counterbalance to right-wing, anti-immigrant parties that are gaining in prominence.


And as the distance between Turkey and its democratic allies grows, the Turkish state’s institutions are becoming more rigidly authoritarian, as its prisons fill and the tolerance for dissenting voices evaporates.

The schism could have also immediate repercussions, most notably for a European Union deal with Turkey to stem the passage of migrants headed to Europe. Turkish officials have repeatedly threatened to scuttle the deal. Last week, in a grim warning about the possible consequences, 11 Syrian refugees trying to reach Greece drowned when their boat sank off the Turkish coast, according to Turkey’s Dogan news agency.


The latest arguments have been sparked by recent events, including a referendum in Turkey this month that could change its system of government from a parliamentary system to what is known as an ‘‘executive presidency.’’ A ‘‘yes’’ vote in the referendum would allow Erdogan to run for an additional term, and possibly remain in office until 2029.

Turkish officials supporting the change have been prevented in recent weeks from addressing expatriate Turkish voters in Europe, drawing a furious reaction from Erdogan and his government that has included accusing the German and Dutch governments of Nazism. European officials, in turn, have become more openly critical of Erdogan’s government.

Ambassadors have been summoned and national leaders vilified on front pages from Ankara to Amsterdam. The frenzied rhetoric has also raised safety concerns, for Turks living in Europe and for Westerners residing in Turkey. Erdogan issued a vague warning last month, saying that unless the Europeans changed their behavior, ‘‘no European, no Westerner will be able to take steps on the streets safely and peacefully,’’ local media reported.

As the frequency of the insults has moved beyond diplomatic crisis to unbridled hostility, it has laid bare tensions that had been building for years, analysts said.


Asli Aydintasbas, a Turk and a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent, unusual flare-up was a sign of how severely the bond between Turkey and Europe has deteriorated. ‘‘There is room for controlled tension, but not this kind of out-of-control spat,’’ she said. ‘‘I think this relationship has very much changed course. It is no longer a real partnership.’’

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, said the referendum campaign in Turkey ‘‘is accelerating this moment of reckoning — laying bare the perennially unbridgeable inconsistencies in the relationship.’’

‘‘It is becoming very difficult to continue with the pretense of Turkish accession’’ into the EU for several reasons, he said, including democratic backtracking in Turkey and the political dynamics in Europe. ‘‘Unfortunately, we have reached a possible turning point in the Turkey-European relationship.’’

Turkey’s entry into the European Union was always going to be a difficult proposition, he said. Turkey — a Muslim-majority country of 71 million people that was referred to derisively by many European leaders as ‘‘too big, too poor, too different’’ — always had more to prove than Eastern European countries that were incorporated in the EU enlargement process, he said.

Turkey’s effort to formally become part of Europe stretches back decades, to 1959, when the country first applied to join the European Economic Union, the precursor to the European Union, which was formed in 1993. European critics of Turkey’s accession highlighted ‘‘cultural difference’’ — a euphemism for its status as a Muslim-majority country — as well as its ongoing dispute with Cyprus and its human rights abuses.