European leaders offered a guarded response to the referendum result granting the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, sweeping new powers, although some senior EU figures said it was the end of the country’s decade-long attempt to join the bloc.
Serious concerns about the implications of the result were signalled by Berlin, Paris and Brussels, although their statements fell short of outright condemnation, despite concerns about the fairness of the campaign.
The Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, issued the most forthright message, ruling out any future accession for Turkey to the EU. “With what happened yesterday, (Turkey’s) membership prospects are buried, in practical terms”, he said. “We are entering a new era”.
The country’s foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, added: “We can’t just go back to the daily routine after the Turkey referendum. We finally need some honesty in the relationship between the EU and Turkey”.
According to the state-run Anadolu Agency, 51.4% of Turkish voters cast their ballot in support of expanding the powers of the presidency, while the no vote had 48.6% support.
However, several Turkish opposition groups have claimed irregularities during the voting process, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said on Monday that the referendum fell short of international standards. One Austrian observer, Stefan Schennach, alleged that “police twice blocked our observation”.
In a newspaper interview, the German foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said that if Ankara were to bring back the death penalty as Erdoğan had suggested on Sunday, the move would be “synonymous with the end of the European dream”.
“Any decision [about joining the EU] will not be on the agenda anytime soon. At any rate, joining would not work right now.,” he said.
Gabriel also issued a joint statement with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, suggesting Erdoğan should show restraint given the tightness of the poll. “The narrow result of the vote shows how deeply split the Turkish society is,” Merkel and Gabriel said. “This implies a big responsibility for the Turkish government and President Erdoğan personally.”
Addressing crowds of supporters from the steps of the presidential palace in Ankara, Erdogan told international election observers to “know their place”, and claimed that it was unimportant to Turkey if the EU broke off accession talks.
“For 54 years, what did they make us do at the EU’s door? Wait!” Erdogan told supporters outside the presidential palace, referring to Turkey’s long-standing membership bid.
The Turkish foreign ministry described the observers’ findings a “biased and prejudiced”, but Merkel and Gabriel said that as an OSCE member and an EU candidate country, Turkey needed to consider their concerns.
The French president, François Hollande also said that if Turkey reinstates the death penalty, it would “constitute a rupture” with Turkey’s pledges to respect human rights as part of efforts to join European institutions.
The president of the European commission, Jean Claude–Juncker, said he would study the OSCE’s findings, but called for “the Turkish authorities to seek the broadest possible national consensus” when making the changes to the constitution enabled by the referendum result.
The leader of the liberal group in the European parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, also called for a stop to the country’s accession talks with the European Union, claiming the democratic checks and balances in Turkey had broken down.
Turkey’s accession talks with the EU began in 2005 but have barely progressed due to concerns over its human rights record and the reticence of some EU nations to include a majority muslim country. Erdogan himself has blown hot and cold on the issue, most recently suggesting he will put the accession question to the people in a referendum.
The cautious response to the referendum results from EU capitals highlights, however, the importance to the bloc of ensuring the continued success of a migration deal with Turkey, under which the country acts as a buffer to those seeking to settle in the bloc in return for economic aid.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s party, the largest political bloc in the European parliament, of which Juncker and Merkel are members, however, issued a statement insisting that there needed to be a reframing of the current relationship.
The German MEP said: “With his referendum Turkish President Erdogan is leaving the nation profoundly split. We are deeply concerned about the developments.
“The path taken by the country’s leadership is proving more and more to be wrong. Europeans must now keep a cool head.What is clear is that the Turkish government has opted for a course away from the rule of law and from democracy.
“Apparently, this is supported by a small majority of Turkish citizens. We must respect that.
“The referendum is a historic event. We need to re-evaluate the situation and draw conclusions. We need a reboot in relations, a new approach to a partnership between friendly neighbours.
“We should offer Turkey a thematic partnership, for example on the fight against terrorism, migration and economic policy, as well as student and cultural exchange. However, this also means that Turkey’s EU membership is off the table.”
Meanwhile, Washington did not dispute the result of the poll, but noted the concerns expressed by OSCE observers and urged the government to respect the rights of all its citizens “regardless of their vote.”
“Democracies gain strength through respect for diverse points of view, especially on difficult issues,” said Mark Toner, acting spokesman for the US State Department.
“The United States continues to support Turkey’s democratic development, to which commitment to the rule of law and a diverse and free media remain essential,” he said.
International observers from the Council of Europe and the OSCE said the referendum campaign was conducted on an “unlevel playing field” and the vote count itself was marred by the late procedural changes that removed key safeguards.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report