Turkey’s constitutional referendum to replace the country’s parliamentary system with a presidential model ended with a victory for the “yes” camp, opening a new era in the country’s political history.
The referendum, held on Sunday, was a historic moment in Turkish history, but what follows it is even more significant, particularly in terms of foreign policy.
It is still unclear how the rhetoric adopted by Turkish officials during the referendum campaign will be reflected in the country’s foreign policy in the post-referendum era. However, it seems that Turkey will have a busy agenda in terms of its relations with the EU and the regional countries.
Relations with Europe at a low
The Turkish referendum was closely watched by the world. Soon after the results, leaders of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iraq, Azerbaijan and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the success of the referendum. However, not a single EU country sent similar messages.
Turkey-EU relations have reached a historical low, particularly after some European countries banned Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of expatriates.
Frustrated with EU policies toward Ankara, Erdogan stated prior to the referendum that Turkey will review its ties with the EU regardless of the outcome of the vote. He has also said the country could hold a referendum on its long-stalled EU membership bid.
Thus, the referendum result was not only a victory for Erdogan but also a “show of strength” toward the EU and a signal of how future Turkish-EU relations could look. In his speech to the crowd soon after the result was declared, Erdogan said that Turkey will consider reinstating the death penalty — something that would spell the end of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations.
There is lots on the table when it comes to Ankara’s relations with Europe, the US and Russia.
The stance adopted by politicians and media in some European countries, during and after the referendum campaign, was prejudiced. German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that the “tight referendum result shows how deeply divided Turkish society is and that means a big responsibility for the Turkish leadership and for President Erdogan personally.”
The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission released a report stating that the constitutional amendments would lead Turkey to autocracy.
Such statements raised eyebrows in Ankara, and paved the way for a further straining of relations between Turkey and the EU, at a time when both sides are considering revising the future phases of Turkey’s EU accession process.
It seems the tension in the relationship between Ankara and Brussels will continue if both sides carry on with the pre-referendum rhetoric, and fail to return to a pragmatic diplomacy and constructive dialogue for a restoration of relations.
Another important issue in Turkish foreign policy is the relationship with the US administration. Erdogan and US President Donald Trump are expected to meet in May ahead of a meeting of the NATO alliance.
One of Erdogan’s recent statements is important in this regard. He said that the Barack Obama administration deceived Turkey over cooperation against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and called for stronger ties with Trump, who was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan after the referendum.
Yet it would be too optimistic to expect Washington and Ankara to solve their differences over the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria anytime soon; a magical formula that would satisfy both NATO allies is still not on the table. However, a future Erdogan-Trump meeting is crucial, as it would provide a chance for both sides to once more highlight their concerns with the current developments in the region and discuss areas of cooperation. Therefore, finding areas of common ground, despite all the obvious problems, will be in the best interest of both parties.
Military action on the radar
Moreover, depending on the certainty of the US stance in the region, we can expect a more active Turkey in the coming period. Erdogan stated on Monday that Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation would not be its last, signaling that more cross-border operations will come. He did not specify where and when the new operations could take place; it could be Iraq, as prior to the referendum Erdogan stated that the second stage would include Iraqi territories still held by terrorists.
An extended operation in Syria is also among the topics being discussed in Ankara’s diplomatic circles. The upcoming Raqqa operation under the leadership of the US, which is expected to start in May, is also on the agenda. However given that Turkey sits on the fence, between the US and Russia, when it comes to Syria, this could be a tough task for Ankara. In any case, it is the developments on the ground in Syria and Iraq that will determine Ankara’s actions in the region and Turkey will continue to walk a middle path between these two global powers to secure its own interests.
Meanwhile, aside from the US, Erdogan is also expected to pay visits to China and India in May. His visit to Southeast Asia could be read as part of Turkey’s foreign-policy aim to increase cooperation with other actors in the international community.
The referendum may be over but, taking into account all the above developments, a busy foreign policy agenda awaits Turkey, with both challenges and opportunities in this new era.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.