Turkish referendum Erdogan's Achilles' Heel

The stakes are too high for Europe not to make its position clear on the upcoming constitutional referendum in Turkey, argues Handelsblatt's foreign affairs editor.

Four issues show how much the constitutional referendum contrived by Turkey's autocratic ruler, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is dividing Germany – and not just among Turkish immigrants living in the country or those with Turkish parents, whether they hold German, Turkish or both passports. They are: a spy scandal involving Erdogan's opponents, massive intimidation in the Turkish community in Germany, Nazi accusations against Berlin and an inordinately intense election campaign surrounding ethnic Turks living in Germany. And those are only the big issues. 

Expect more confrontation should Mr. Erdogan become a Sultan by public vote after the results of the constitutional referendum are announced on April 16.

The debate over how to deal with the "new" Erdogan would become yet another test for the European Union. To avoid a self-destructive investigation of the causes, E.U. member states should make a clear public statement about the consequences of a victory for Erdogan in this referendum. These would include the termination of E.U. accession negotiations with Ankara, the cessation of associated pre-accession billions in aid, and a challenge to the European customs union with Turkey.

How can the German government explain to its citizens that by 2020 it will have paid about €915 million ($976 million) of the €4.45 billion in pre-accession aid to a country that is clearly accepting a one-man autocracy and is turning its back on the separation of powers anchored in democracy? How can Germany continue to pay Turkey €300 million a year for the participation of Turkish institutes in E.U. research projects, as it did last? And why should the E.U. negotiate with Turkey on the expansion of the customs union, especially to include the agricultural sector, which is so important to Turkey, when the country is clearly reintroducing the death penalty against Brussels's declared will?

Continued silence would further exacerbate the divide within the Turkish community in Germany after the referendum.

Neither Germans nor enlightened Turkish citizens would approve of that. And millions of upstanding Turks are already being abandoned by the roaring silence and lack of support coming from the West. Not to mention the tens of thousands who are locked up in Mr. Erdogan's overfilled jails and must resist so-called "fair trials" in alleged terrorism cases brought by a decimated justice system.

Some question whether the political and economic consequences for the European Union and Germany should only be addressed after the wannabe Sultan's referendum because outside interference in the election campaign may only benefit Mr. Erdogan. But it would be even worse if Berlin and Brussels waited until after April 16 to announce an end to the E.U. accession process and the billions in aid associated with it.

For the majority of Turks, this would feel as if they were being punished for their vote. This is also the reason why they need to know beforehand what the consequences and reactions could be in the event of a victory for Mr. Erdogan, so that they can factor it into their decision. Everyone is free to vote as he or she pleases but should also be aware of the consequences of that vote. It is not a question of extortion but of sincerity, honesty and respect – not only to the Turks, but also to the Europeans, who should in no way be expected to pay anything anymore for Mr. Erdogan's "other" Turkey.

Continued silence would further exacerbate the divide within the Turkish community in Germany after the referendum. Opponents of Mr. Erdogan who want to vote no on the referendum are being berated, spit at and spied on, while others who already don't feel entirely welcome in Germany are denigrated as Erdogan supporters.

Turkey should also not feel disadvantaged if, in response to the referendum, it is denied the more extensive customs union Ankara and Brussels are on the verge of negotiating. In its dealings with Russia, for example, the E.U. has always negotiated trade issues in parallel with problems relating to the justice system and human rights.

For Mr. Erdogan, a clear and coordinated European position would not boost his campaign. The Turkish economy is his Achilles' heel. In March, unemployment reached 12.7 percent, its highest level in seven years, while growth and investment continue to decline. The termination of billions in aid would not help Mr. Erdogan's cause, and he certainly cannot use the threat of cancelling the E.U.-Turkey refugee deal as a bargaining chip.

The European Union and the German government need to be honest, clear and self-confident. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to break her silence very soon, because the voting deadline for German citizens of Turkish origin who are entitled to vote is April 9.

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