Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pulled yet another block out of the already precarious Jenga tower that is the EU-Turkey agreement on migration, moving to oust the politician who has been Brussels’ most trusted partner in Ankara.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Thursday he would not be a candidate in a special election the ruling Justice and Development party will hold on May 22 to choose a new leader. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan both insisted the decision was the prime minister’s alone, but it was widely seen by observers as another move by the increasingly autocratic Turkish president to consolidate his hold on power.
In an indication that he would be relinquishing power immediately, Davutoğlu said, “As of today, my relationship with the president is one of a friendly one.”
The announcement by the prime minister came after he held a lengthy meeting Wednesday night with Erdoğan. Davutoğlu said his relationship with Erdoğan was “brotherly” but also referred to longstanding differences the two have had over the government’s policies. “The strongest candidate is one that is at peace with himself,” he said in a news conference. “I’ve never negotiated my principles with anybody and my principles are non-negotiable.”
EU officials were on Thursday still trying to process a situation one of them called “evolving,” although it was clear the political instability in Turkey would have serious implications for relations between Brussels and Ankara, especially regarding the controversial deal to stem the flow of migrants into Europe.
The big concern is that with the moderate Davutoğlu likely to be replaced by an Erdoğan crony, it will become even more difficult to see the EU-Turkey deal through. Notwithstanding persistent concerns about the treatment of refugees, who are being returned to Turkey from Greece, the plan appears to be working in keeping refugees from traveling across the Aegean to Greece.
European officials say the Turkey deal is the only realistic option they have to keep the refugees at bay. Despite complications in implementing it, Davutoğlu has been a reliable partner, they say.
“When we meet Davutoğlu, the Turkish position is measured and reasonable,” said a European official involved in the deal. “But then Erdoğan and his people come out of nowhere with a new provocation.”
The shakeup is also likely to complicate the EU plan to grant Turks visa-free travel in Europe, a key aspect of the refugee deal. The European Parliament has the power to block the visa waiver agreement, but signs that Erdoğan is further strengthening his grip on power are galvanizing opposition to the deal. Criticism of the plan has been building in the Parliament in recent weeks amid Erdoğan’s crackdown on the media, dissident academics and the Kurdish minority in Turkey.
Davutoğlu’s departure is a particular blow to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who invested a considerable amount of time and effort building a relationship with him. Merkel met with Davutoğlu several times since last fall to hash out the details of the refugee agreement. She made the case to other European leaders that he could be trusted.
The German leader’s relationship with Erdoğan has been fraught ever since she came out in opposition to Turkey’s EU membership in 2005. With Davutoğlu out of the picture, Berlin has no one in the Turkish leadership it trusts.
Turkish officials, meanwhile, tried to portray Erdoğan’s decision as a move to boost the “stability” of the country. Presidential adviser Cemil Ertem said in an interview Wednesday night with broadcaster NTV that Turkey will continue “securely” until the current government’s mandate expires in 2019 and that the country would stabilize further when a prime minister more closely aligned with Erdoğan takes office.
Even as they were rubber-stamping their recommendation that the EU give Turkish citizens visa-free travel in Europe — Ankara’s key demand in exchange for the migration deal — EU officials were expressing worries about the political situation in Turkey. Reports of the potential shake-up raised concerns during Wednesday’s meeting of European commissioners, at which they approved the decision, according to a source present in the room.
The source added that the Commission has considered Davutoğlu a partner in the EU-Turkey deal, and wouldn’t see it as a sign of success of the visa liberalization proposal if he wasn’t there to make sure that Turkey stands by its commitments.
For months, Davutoğlu and Erdoğan have played good cop, bad cop with Brussels. The prime minister was the smiling, humble face of the Turkish government at EU summits, talking up Turkey’s desires to be closer to Europe and promising to be its stable partner in pacifying the Middle East. Meanwhile, the president, sometimes on the same day gave fiery speeches back home that taunted European leaders, for example about their criticisms of Turkey’s record on human rights.
Erdoğan’s provocations have stepped up even as the EU has heralded its deal with him as a migration success story. His recent actions to crack down on press freedoms at home — including a government seizure of opposition newspaper Zaman and the arrest of several journalists critical of his government — have only stoked outrage in the west that the EU was turning a blind eye to an increasingly authoritarian regime.
Coming just as the European Commission was trumpeting its decision on the visa deal, the news about Davutoğlu came as yet another provocation. Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans had just finished saying that despite some concerns Ankara had made “impressive progress” in bringing many of its laws up to Western standards. Timmermans insisted that Turkey would get no “free ride” in the process, and insisted it would have to meet five remaining benchmarks out of a total of 72 if it wanted to ensure the agreement.
In recent days Turkey’s parliament has acted quickly to enact several measures required for the deal, but the hurdles still to be cleared include legislation on corruption, counter-terrorism, and data protection.
In the end, it may not matter. The real question marks for the deal remain in Brussels, in Strasbourg, and in national capitals, where opposition is growing to it. Even before the news of Davutoğlu’s departure, the visa liberalization deal was on shaky ground politically. Several key members of the European Parliament expressed doubts about it and insisted they would hold Turkey to meeting all of the criteria before approving it.
Leaders of the assembly’s main political groups said Wednesday that while they welcomed Ankara’s progress in fulfilling the criteria, it would wait to see whether Turkey would meet all the necessary requirements.
“Until this is fully the case, and until the Commission provides the Parliament with a written guarantee that it is the case, thorough work should continue but no referral to committee can take place,” read a statement from a European Parliament spokesman.
Manfred Weber, leader of the Parliament’s largest political group, the center-right European People’s Party, gave the strongest signal against the visa deal Wednesday, saying he would oppose any attempt at “watering down” the requirements for completion of the agreement.
In his press conference Wednesday, Timmermans tried to put concerns about Turkey’s commitment to European values into a broader political perspective, saying it was better to engage with Ankara than to lecture it.
“In the past years of not engaging with Turkey, of just shouting, what has that done to improve the situation of human rights in Turkey? Nothing” Timmermans said. “Just shouting at them and turning our backs on them will not improve the situation.”
Florian Eder contributed to this article.