A Turkish reshuffle spells trouble for Europe

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.

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Asli Aydintasbas of the ECFR

Asli Aydintasbas is Senior Policy Fellow at ECFR, where she primarily works on Turkish foreign policy and external ramifications of its domestic politics.