‘Our patience has limits’: Erdogan says Turkey may hold referendum on joining EU

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan © Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Presidential Palace / Handout via Reuters
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Brussels of pressing Ankara to give up its bid to join the EU. Noting that Ankara’s patience “has limits,” Erdogan hinted he might hold a referendum on the question of Turkey’s accession to the bloc.

"The European Union is pressing us to withdraw from our [accession] process. If they don't want us, they should make a decision and speak clearly about it," Erdogan told the Hurriyet daily on Sunday.

"Our patience has its limits. If need be, we could also consult our people. Let's see what the people will say,” he said.

Ankara began formal accession talks with the EU in 2005. In March 2016, the sides reached what seemed to be a historic deal, sealing a joint plan to tackle the migrant crisis. Ankara promised it would assist the EU in dealing with the influx of refugees and migrants, in exchange for multibillion-euro funding as well as the potential facilitation of EU accession and visa-free travel within the Schengen zone for Turkish citizens.

Despite plans to introduce the visa-free agreement back in July, it has so far been postponed, with the EU authorities saying that Turkey has failed to comply with all of the bloc's 72 criteria. Ankara's tough anti-terrorism legislation, specifically criticized by Brussels, appears to be the main stumbling block.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in September that the government is under pressure to abandon its plans to join the 28-member bloc because of the "double standards" the EU applies toward Turkey. According to the official, many in Turkey no longer actually want EU membership.

"We are under huge pressure to stop the negotiating process," Cavusoglu said at a Strategic Forum in Slovenia, as quoted by Reuters. "Turkish people see the double standard," he added.

Last week the Turkish president issued a veiled threat to unleash a wave of refugees on Europe, in response to EU officials warning of a potential collapse of the union’s deal with Ankara, which has curbed the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Erdogan noted that Turkey is currently hosting 3 million refugees on its territory, adding that if they all marched into Europe, the Europeans would not know what to do with them. He also reminded Brussels that under the terms of Turkey’s refugee deal with the EU, the union is set to provide €6 billion (US$6.45 billion) in aid over the course of several years.

“As far as I can remember, until now the EU had only given €250-300 million to Turkey so far,” he said.

It came shortly after several officials in Europe voiced concerns that the EU has no contingency plan if the Turkish deal collapses.

“As the deal between the EU and Turkey is turning more and more fragile and the first cracks are becoming visible, we must make sure that we are ready to act,” Austrian Defense Minister Hans Peter Doskozil told journalists last Monday.

European Union foreign ministers who met on Monday to discuss the possibility of shelving membership talks with Turkey following harsh post-coup crackdowns by the Erdogan government did not come to a final decision, Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed Turks live on television in Ankara, calling on his country to wait until the end of the year and then vote on EU membership.

“Let's wait until the end of the year and then go to the people. Let's go to the people since they will make the final call. Even Britain went to the people. Britain said 'Let's exit,' and they left,” Erdogan said.

He criticized European Parliament President Martin Schulz who said that Ankara's purge of civil servants “call[s] into question the basis for the sustainable relationship between the EU and Turkey.”

“What are you? Since when do you have the authority to decide for Turkey? How can you, who have not taken Turkey into the EU for 53 years, find the authority to make such a decision?” Erdogan said.

Erdogan has once again spoken in favor of reintroducing death penalty, a matter which has already stirred much controversy among the EU members.

The EU has repeatedly criticized Turkey for cracking down on officials and journalists allegedly linked to self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, who was accused of organizing a failed military coup attempt in Turkey in July. The EU believes that Ankara went too far in the aftermath of the attempted coup, particularly regarding the proposal to reinstate the death penalty.

An EU report published last week acknowledged the threat the coup had posed, but once again called into question Turkey’s aspirations to become a member.

“The coup attempt of July 15 was an attack on democracy per se. We were among the very first to condemn it. And given the seriousness of the situation, a swift reaction to the threat was legitimate,” the EU’s top enlargement official, Johannes Hahn, said.

“Turkey, as a candidate country, must fulfill the highest standards in the rule of law and fundamental rights, to which it committed itself and on which there cannot be any compromises. In this year’s report, we therefore stress Turkey’s backsliding in the area of rule of law and fundamental rights,” he added.