Commission ‘seriously concerned’ about Turkish constitutional changes

Worried about Turkey: EU High Representative Federica Mogherini. [Drop of Light/Shutterstock]

The European Commission highlighted the “serious concerns” expressed by the Council of Europe on Monday (13 March) over the amendments to the Turkish constitution which are due to be voted on in the 16 April referendum.

The Venice Commission, the specialised body of the Council of Europe for constitutional matters, published its Opinion yesterday, stating that the proposed constitutional amendments in Turkey are a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy.

The Turkish parliament passed the constitutional amendments last January with more than the minimum 330 votes in the 550-seat assembly. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan approved the reform last February. If the legislation is approved in the 16 April referendum, it could pave the way for Erdoğan to remain in office until 2029.

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The Venice Commission warns against a “personal regime” in Turkey, noting that by removing necessary checks and balances, the amendments would not follow the model of a democratic presidential system based on the separation of powers, and instead would risk degeneration into an authoritarian presidential system.

Conclusions of the opinion include the following:

  • Letting the new president exercise executive power alone, with unsupervised authority to appoint and dismiss ministers, and to appoint and dismiss all high officials on the basis of criteria determined by him or her alone;
  • allowing the president to be a member and even the leader of his or her political party, that would give him or her undue influence over the legislature;
  • giving the president the power to dissolve parliament on any grounds whatsoever, which is fundamentally alien to democratic presidential systems
  • further weakening the already inadequate system of judicial oversight of the executive.
    further weakening the independence of the judiciary.

In addition, the opinion raises serious procedural concerns, the Venice Commission notes. For example, Turkey’s parliament approved the amendments to be put to referendum when several deputies from the second largest opposition party were in jail.

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The Council of Europe also stresses that the vote for approving the amendments was made in breach of a secret ballot, casting doubt on the genuine nature of support for reform and on the personal nature of the deputies’ vote.

Furthermore, the current state of emergency does not provide the proper democratic setting for a vote as important as a constitutional referendum, the Venice Commission concluded.

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The Commission published a joint statement by EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn, stating that if approved, the proposed constitutional amendments will be assessed in light of Turkey’s obligations as an EU candidate country and as a member of the Council of Europe.

The two state that the Venice Commission’s comments on the proposed constitutional amendments raise serious concerns. They also state that following recent tensions between Turkey and some EU member states, “it is essential to avoid further escalation and find ways to calm down the situation”.

“Decisions with regard to the holding of meetings and rallies in member states are a matter for the member state concerned, in accordance with the applicable provisions of international and national law,” Mogherini and Hahn say.

On Monday, Turkey said it was suspending top-level ties with The Netherlands and blocking the return of its ambassador in a spiralling crisis over the holding of rallies abroad ahead of a crucial referendum.

Turkey suspends top-level ties with Netherlands in escalating crisis

Turkey on Monday (13 March) said it was suspending top-level ties with The Netherlands and blocking the return of its ambassador in a spiralling crisis over the holding of rallies abroad ahead of a crucial referendum.

“The European Union calls on Turkey to refrain from excessive statements and actions that risk further exacerbating the situation. Matters of concern can only be resolved through open and direct communication channels. We will continue to provide our good offices in the interest of EU-Turkey relations,” the statement ends.