A Turkish reshuffle spells trouble for Europe

Davutoğlu’s departure may cut the EU and Turkey’s honeymoon period short, and endanger the refugee deal agreed just two months ago.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s sudden departure from the corridors of power may not necessarily mark an end to the refugee deal with Europe — but it will certainly raise the stakes for Europe in its dealings with Ankara.

Davutoğlu’s decision to leave his post as a result of a “behind-the-scenes” power struggle with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came on the same day as the European Commission’s recommendation to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens. Under normal circumstances, this would have been hailed as a historic day in the Turkish media, with much of the credit going to Davutoğlu himself, who led the painstaking negotiations with Brussels in March.

Instead, it turned into a day of atonement, following a tense meeting between the president and the prime minister. Despite doing their best to convey an image of political harmony in public, tensions had been running high for some time. The position of the presidency is largely ceremonial according to the Turkish constitution, but Erdoğan’s shadow had loomed over the executive branch, led by the prime minister, since the beginning of Davutoğlu’s term on August 2014.

Irreconcilable differences

The two men had growing differences on thorny issues like the party roster, the treatment of dissidents, and relations with Europe. According to AKP insiders and various accounts provided by journalists close to Erdoğan,[1] Turkey’s strongman came to see Davutoğlu’s efforts to smooth the edges of his presidency as a betrayal. The decisive move came two weeks ago when the AKP’s central committee stripped Davutoğlu of all his powers within the party. In the end, unable to control either AKP parliamentarians or the party apparatus, Davutoğlu had no other option but to resign.

It is the prime minister’s rapport with Europe that may have accelerated his demise, with the Turkish President increasingly seeing this honeymoon period in Turkish-European relations as an effort to bypass his authority. Throughout the tough negotiations between Turkey and the European Commission in March, Erdoğan noticeably stepped up his criticism of the EU, often portraying it as a “hypocritical” power unwilling to live up to its part of the deal with Turkey and insensitive to the plight of refugees. Europe’s unwillingness to curb Kurdish activism against Turkish policies was also a popular theme in Erdoğan’s public speeches throughout March.

The working relationship between Davutoğlu and European leaders, including the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seem to have turned into a liability for the Turkish prime minister over the past few months. When Martin Schultz, head of the European Parliament, told Bild Ann Sontag in early April, “We have made the pact, not with Mr. Erdoğan but with the Turkish republic”, Erdoğan responded that there was “an operation against Turkey by the German school,” suggesting a wider conspiracy to circumvent his power.[2]

Consolidation of power

With the departure of Davutoğlu, Erdoğan has a chance to further consolidate his power over the cabinet and the AKP majority in parliament. He will certainly be the sole decision-maker on who will run for party leadership at the AKP emergency congress on 22 May and subsequently become the prime minister of Turkey. All three potential replacement candidates for Davutoğlu — Minister of Justice, Bekir Bozdağ, Minister of Transportation, Binali Yıldırım, Minister of Energy and Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak — happen to be close confidants of the Turkish president. However, with a low-profile party loyalist as prime minister, the post is unlikely to have the same weight as it had under Davutoğlu.

What all this means for Ankara’s relations with Europe will largely depend on how accommodating Brussels would be towards Erdoğan’s next move.

One of the key tenets of the March accord was visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in Europe, which could be rolled-out as early as June, provided that Turkey complies with the 72 benchmarks spelled out by the European Commission. Ankara has already said that it would suspend the Turkey-EU readmission accord if Turks are not given visa-free travel by June – the month by which it was hoping to meet the bulk of the EU’s criteria.

Top among these 72 conditions is a requirement for Ankara to revise its anti-terrorism legislation in line with European standards. Critics points out that Turkey’s current laws are too broad and infringe on free speech. In recent times these laws have been wielded to prosecute academics and journalists critical of government policies on the Kurdish issue.

A new phase for EU-Turkey relations?

A day after the removal of Davutoğlu, Erdoğan told Brussels that he would be unwilling to alter the country’s anti-terror legislation in return for visa-free travel – as was the understanding under Davutoğlu. “We'll go our way, you go yours”, he announced to Europe, leaving Brussels politicians scratching their heads over whether he is bluffing or not.

Instead of limiting Turkey’s anti-terror laws, Erdoğan wants to further expand the legislation to include speech and journalism that is deemed to support terrorism, and in particular the PKK, as he has argued in many public fora.[3] Another priority for the government is to revise the definition of terrorism in order to be able to purge members of the Gülen movement from public service entirely — something which Turkey’s current laws do not allow.

Yet another test for Brussels over the next few months will be how to handle Turkey’s decision to retract the immunity of Kurdish deputies and push for possible jail time for some. This development largely came from President Erdoğan, who forcefully called for measures to be taken against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). With the support of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), AKP deputies are scheduled to vote on the measure on 16 May, paving the way for legal proceedings against Kurdish and opposition deputies.

In the end, whether the refugee deal survives or not will depend on Europe’s “flexibility” on these issues. Will Europe live up to Erdoğan’s challenge and insist on its principles, or make last-minute manoeuvres to save the deal?

Despite mounting criticism from the media and the European Parliament, advocates of the deal in Brussels have pointed out that it was an essential compromise to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. And— with dwindling numbers of illegal crossings across the Aegean— that it worked!

But with the sweet-mannered English-speaking Davutoğlu, those comprises seemed somehow easier.

With him gone, all bets are off.


[1] One of these was an anonymous online text, called the “Pelican Declaration” which appeared last week and was attacking Davutoglu for trying to undermine the Turkish president. Journalists close to Erdogan shared the link on social media.

[2] Erdoğan used the Turkish word “operasyon,” often used in the context of an “intelligence operation,” suggesting a Germany-led conspiracy against his power. Some commentators have underlined that Davutoglu happens to be fluent in German and is a graduate of a German high-school in Istanbul, suggesting perhaps that he was also implicated in Erdoğan’s comments.

[3] In the anonymous Pelican Declaration, Davutoğlu is accused, among other things, of not supporting the imprisonment of academics jailed for signing a peace petition on the Kurdish issue. Many of the over a thousand signatories lost jobs but only three were sentenced to jail. While condemning the petition Davutoğlu publicly said he does not support jail time. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.