Sofia view: Turkey & the Shanghai route to Europe


The latest rhetorical bombshell from Turkey’s PM Tayyip Erdoğan, a leader not known for mincing his words, is that Turkey might well join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), instead of persevering with its decades-long effort to accede to the EU. Speaking to Kanal 24, a TV channel,  Erdoğan fondly shared what he said to his Russian colleague Vladimir Putin: “Take us into the Shanghai Five; do it, and we will say farewell to the EU, leave it altogether. Why all this stalling?”

It's easy to dismiss this as pure posturing. After all, such grand statements are very much in sync with Turkey’s political mood at the moment. Swapping the perfidious EU for a forum would put Turkey in with the up-and-coming powers of Central Asia, and a growing hub in global geopolitics. It would be much more reassuring to be in the same club as China and even with Russia (admittedly on a post-BRIC trajectory).  China would give Turkey’s SCO entry thumbs up. And the energy-rich ex-Soviet republics, a prime target for Ankara’s foreign policy effort back in the early 1990s, would mean trading the old days of subservience to Europe’s fiat and ill-hidden racism to a future of great powerdom and influence across several neighbourly regions.

This vision is certainly a bold one but it does not lack substance. After all, Turkey is now part of the G20 and is well at ease with playing power politics with the big guys on the block. For instance, although an adversary in Syria, Russia is already a valued partner on other issues, from energy trade to stability in the Southern Caucasus. In a sense, Erdoğan is conveying a well established fact: Turkey is a regional pivot and more of a player than just another EU satellite.

The question is whether Ankara can simply shut the door on Brussels. Obviously the answer is no. There are several arguments to consider:

  • The economy: the EU remains an indispensable trading and, above all, investment partner. 
  • Politics: without the EU as an external anchor Turkey’s democratisation would become less and less of a prospect (check ex-EU delegation head Marc Pierini’s excellent report on press (un)freedom).
  • People: millions of Turkish citizens live in the EU, not in North Africa or China.
  • Most of all, well, the drive to power: foreign policy ambitions are best served when options are kept open. 

By now it must be patent that Turkey is not an either-or, East-or-West country. If anything the long-standing relationship with the West has grown more important in the past year, especially with NATO deploying its Patriot missiles along the Syria border. It is furthermore the received wisdom that relations with the EU have ground to a halt but if one zooms in things don’t look all that bad. For one thing the EU Council issued Turkey with a roadmap for visa liberalisation back on 30 November. For another, François Hollande is expected in Ankara in March, so expectations that France will lift at least some of its vetoes on certain negotiation chapters are building. At the minimum, Paris has apparently promised not to block any additional chapters in the future. 

So the EU option still isn't that bad, Mr Erdoğan.


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