Turkey between Shanghai and Brussels


What does it mean if Turkey moves her corporate alliance center from Brussels to Shanghai? Can this be done? If so, what will it cost for Turkey?

On January 25, 2013, in an interview with Kanal 24, a Turkish TV station, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to a question about Turkey’s European Union bid saying: “I joked with Putin, ‘Time to time you joke with us and ask what we are doing with EU. Now it is my turn to joke. Come, accept us into the Shanghai Five and we will reconsider EU.’” That was sufficient to start a new set of discussions inTurkey.

Although, Erdogan’s discourse was basically a by-product of the rage about the EU’s reluctance towards Turkey’s accession and intended to push the Union to reach a decision, the discussions were way out of proportion. In general, there were two different perspectives through the discussions. The first perspective – mostly adopted by liberals who read foreign policy through norms – claimed that Erdogan made this move because the EU’s normative demands were limiting the government’s elbow room in both internal and external affairs. On the other hand, the second perspective was generally represented by the conservatives, who approach the EU through a more instrumental frame, and claimed that the EU cannot meet the expectations anymore and is in the process of decline; therefore, alternative alliance systems can be developed; so, the conservatives were sympathetic towards Erdogan’s discourse. Although both perspectives drew attention to some critical points, the arguments they set forth missed the entire picture. The identity, geography, and political, economic and social relations ofTurkeyrequire a more realistic approach that considers these two but goes beyond them.

Is foreign policy/EU a normative issue?

Unless the foreign policy issues are not relevant to the role, identity and qualities of Turkey, the society does not pay much attention to them. The main reason why Erdogan’s discourse has created such an impact and been discussed in the media can be tied to the EU perception inTurkey. This is becauseEurope, or institutionally the EU, is not part of a geographic region or a system of alliance, but a reference point for modernization, democratization, development, respect for human rights and similar criteria. A segment of the society, which attributes these qualities to the EU, fiercely criticize such an initiative; because they believe that the replacement of our EU perspective with some other alliance systems will have the same effect as the replacement of the aforementioned values with different values.

The same group also interprets Erdogan’s move pointing out the membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative to the EU membership, as a way of escape from psychological and political pressures caused by the EU’s annual progress reports, human rights and democracy. They also stress that the SCO membership does not set any conditions on candidate countries regarding democratization, human rights and the rule of law, conversely to the Copenhagen Criteria as the EU accession requirement. In this case, the SCO provides member states a great deal of autonomy in internal and external affairs. Therefore, the claim is that Erdogan has turned his face from Brussels to Shanghai in order to have such an autonomy.

Such an interpretation overlooks the experiences of the last 5-6 years. The annual progress reports released by the EU do not induce any real serious concern neither inTurkeynor in the EU circles. The reports of 2004 and 2005 attracted the attention of the society, media, non-governmental organizations and political circles as they became the topic of various discussions. However, the contents of the other reports released in the last 5-6 years are only followed by the bureaucrats in the EU and inTurkeyand by very limited groups. The reports’ sphere of influence narrows inTurkey. Therefore, the claim of “the progress reports do not give elbow room to the government” does not seem realistic. But, in particular, to claim that some limited interference and the periodic relevant feeble complaints ensuing therefrom to cause a changeover in Turkey’s route to the West and to the alliance system she belongs to (despite her 150-200 years of normative and intellectual cooperation and over 60 years of institutional cooperation in that direction) is quite irrational in terms of politics.

However, the EU’s role in Turkey’s democratic transformation process is undeniable. If it were not for the EU anchor in the period 2002-2006, neither the consecutive steps of democratization nor the reform packages could have been adopted easily. Still, starting from this and seeing the EU as the most important factor in Turkey’s democratic consolidation makes our democracy extremely fragile. The EU’s transformation effect on a country mostly occurs during the candidacy period. As soon as the candidate country becomes a member, the EU’s effect on internal and foreign politics of that state is infinitely limited. In this context, anti-democratic implementations of Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party in Hungary, an EU member, show how fragile the country’s democratization and how limited the EU’s impact has been after Hungaryjoined the Union. According to The Guardian, Orban has tried to dominate in every area of social and private lives, and centralized the economy since he came to power. During this term, only one TV and one radio station have remained independent. The Election law and the constituents’ logs were modified in a way to preserve his rulership. Still, the EU can apply very limited impositions against Orban. In other words, as long as a member country manages to remain loyal to elective democracy, runs the market economy soundly and keeps the economy in good shape, the EU can do very few things against anti-democratic acts of that country. In consequence, although there is nothing undeniable about how critical a role the EU anchor plays at the beginning and in gaining momentum during the democratization process, one should acknowledge the fact that the democratic consolidation is achieved only through internal politics and internal dynamics (such as the development of the culture of demoracy and of the middle-class). Therefore, the thesis of “membership in the EU is equal to democractic consolidation” is not a postulate verified by the experiences of the member states.

Is the EU membership an instrumental project losing its attractiveness?

On the other hand, the second perspective that approaches the EU through a more instrumental frame does not sufficiently serve to the instrumental goals which are expected of it, and it leans towards the development of alternative alliance systems, believing that Turkey’s entry to the Union is prevented because of the identity, history and civilization values. Although this perspective does not fully support but symphatizes with Erdogan’s discourse on the SCO membership, believing thatTurkey’s influence over the region and the world will increase more through alternative alliance systems and through multi-dimentional foreign policy. Advocates of this view consider the opportunities to be created by developing strong relations and establishing alliances with the newly emerging powers in the world, but forget about the risk of political, economic and security costs, which are caused by the new alliances to be formed at the cost of the old ones, and they could be notably high.

The initial cost of moving the alliance center from Brussels to Shanghai would likely occur in the context of Turkey’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Established in 1949, NATO approved membership ofTurkeyin 1952 and it has been deployed against the Soviets Union/The Communist Block during the Cold War period and against the non-state actors, particularly against the Islamic groups following the collapse of the Soviets. It is much likely that NATO will concentrate on China/Pacific region in the new era. In this sense, ifTurkey, as a NATO member, moves her strategic alliance center fromBrusselsto China/Russia, this will obviously have a high cost forTurkey. For China/Russia is anticipated to be in the center of NATO’s rival/threat perception in the new era. Upon being reminded about Erdogan’s remarks on the subject, Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the US Department of State, said, “Obviously it would be interesting; given the fact thatTurkeyis also a NATO member.” Nuland’s answer was also a sign thatTurkey’s NATO membership would be the cost ifTurkeyconsiders changing her group of alliance. Therefore, before freezing the EU entry process and sailing to the SCO,Turkeyshould seriously ponder about whether or not to risk her NATO membership, which has been the center ofTurkey’s perception of security and defense for 60 years.

However, the supporters of this view draw attention to the EU’s reluctance towards Turkey’s membership, to the economic crisis in the Union, to conflicts among the member states and lastly to the announcement made by the ruling conservative party in Britain to seek a popular vote in 2017 or 2018 for the country’s EU membership if they win the next elections. Therefore, they read this picture as that the EU is not important anymore as much as it was in the past and has just entered a period of disintegration. The on-going heavy economic crisis in the EU and the political crisis triggered by it led to conflicts among member states. This could be the correct description of the picture. However, starting from this and jumping to conclusion that the EU will be disintegrated and thatBritainwill break-up with theUnionis just a premature and superficial reading of the matter.

Political elites of the EU are trying to keep the Union together by seeking a deeper integration in different areas, not as a preference but a necessity. European politicians and intellectuals are aware of the fact that the EU can only as a union establish equal relations with the US, China, India, Russia and Brazil in a period in which these powers compel the international system. Despite the deep economic crisis and dreadful political mistakes made in Greece, the efforts to save the country rather than to dismiss her from the Euro zone is a sign of determination to keep the Union together.

In addition, discussions at the beginning of the crisis and solution formulas refer to a union that has adopted more integration as a recipe to save itself, rather than a union about to disintegrate. For the moment, the main agenda item in the meetings held among the Euro zone countries is the formation of an EU Finance Minister position in order to reinforce the common euro currency and the euro policies with common financial policies. This is also a sign of an existing urge or a need to build more integration. As a matter of fact, the Lisbon Treaty, signed in 2007 and put into force in 2009, paved the way for political integration as well as the economic integration. The Lisbon Treaty introducing a president for the European Council, a high representative for the EU foreign affairs and more authority to the European Parliament, to the European Court of Justice and to the European Commission, was regarded a milestone for the European dream. Although it is too early to have such a dream, a significant progress was made for the political integration ofEuropewith the Lisbon Treaty. For instance, former Prime Minister of Belgium Herman Von Rompuy was selected as the president to the European Council. He was picked for his low profile, in particular, after long internal bargainings. But if a high profile politician were selected instead of him, such as Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac or Helmut Schrödinger, the EU’s political presence could have been felt more in the international arena. Since the mechanism has been set already, a high profile politician can have this position in the future through bargaining, and increase the global visibility of the EU.

Finally, the groups adopting this perspective try to learn some lessons for Turkey from Britain’s possible referendum on the EU membership if the conservative party wins the next elections. First of all, most analysts believe that during the barganings with the EU,Britainaims to gain more concessions in financial services and banking sector in particular. Therefore, few people considerBritain’s departure from the EU. However, even ifBritainleaves the Union, this does not set an example forTurkeybecause circumstances in these two countries are quite different. Aside from a memberhip in the EU, Britain also has very special and institutional ties with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as native speakers of English and Anglo-Saxon countries. The dimensions of these special ties would be better understood given the fact that the newly appointed Chairman of the Central Bank inBritain, Mark Carney, is actually of Canadian citizen and that he previously served as the chairman of the Central Bank ofCanada. Besides, even ifBritainbreak-ups with the EU, her NATO membership will not be questioned as she did not demand membership to a different alliance system as an alternative to NATO. Lastly,Britainhas some more adventages in terms of having institutional relations with the old colonies, the Common Wealth. Despite all, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs of the US, Philip Gordon, during a visit to London, said that if Britain leaves the EU that would also affect the British-US relations; an important point to show how the relations among the EU, the US and NATO are interconnected and how a change in one of them affects all. Therefore, without paying attention to main differences, just comparing Turkey’s approach, only an EU candidate yet, with that of Britain is just a superficial reading as well.

After all, Turkey should consider the possible cost of such membership and possible changes in institutional realations with the EU and with the West if she is serious about the SCO membership. In this scope, Turkey must (or must not) take this step, keeping in sight that such an attempt could end her NATO membership and the EU will more likely be engaged in a deeper integration process from now on, and the parallels drawn between her and Britain’s case are only on the surface. For this reason, Turkey should make rational evaluations on different alliance systems and on Turkey-EU relations, and should take her steps accordingly.

The realist approach: Alternative cooperations with various regions and limited membership in the EU

As the numbers of regional alliances and cooperation institutions increase every day and the “regionalization” is experienced more, Turkey’s seeking alternative alliances and willingness to develop other cooperation models – with the assumption that the EU accession may not be actualized – is a legitimate move and a necessary step. That is to say,Turkeyshould not give up on the EU perspective; however, should reckon with the fact that an EU membership despite the EU’s itself is not possible. This approach could bringTurkeyinto a more realistic relation with the EU and provide an opportunity to develop an alternative alliance other than the EU/West without externalizing the EU/West.

Developments in recent years prove that the mentality and the system of EU accession depart from the “all-or-non principle”. The system today is de facto annular enlargement. Some countries become members after accepting all areas of membership, including economy, foreign policy, legal system, protection of borders, common monetary currency and visa system. Some countries accept some of the areas and skip the rest. For instance,Britain,SwedenandDenmarkdo not use the common currency, which is one of the most important facilities of the Union, yetIrelandandBritainagain do not join the common visa system. In this case, different membership systems come into existence as some countries join all areas but some others make preferential entry.

As a result of the 2004 and 2007 rapid enlargements, both Europeans and the Union had an urge for an identity search due to the Lisbon Treaty and negative feelings against the increasing numbers of immigration and Muslims in the EU. The more often asked question is, “Is the EU just a project to establish a federalEuropeor is it a structure that has a bit more than an economic integration system?” If the EU becomes a complete political structure or a State of Europe, then it is to be built on the Helenistic philosophy, the Roman state law and tradition and the Christian theology, or on secular principles emanated from the Enlightment. Besides, in both cases, what type of a relation Europe should develop with the representative countries of the “other” civilizations and cultures is also a matter of question. These issues are the core of the current discussions. In line with this,Turkeyhas experienced political, social and economic transformations in the last decade and that has made notable impact on both the EU perception in the country and on its own identity perception. The EU/Europe is gradually losing the quality of being a point of reference for what is good and necessary. For this reason, unless the EU decides over about its identity and what it should be, the chances forTurkeyto have a full accession is extremely low. Besides, the role whichTurkeyis to adopt will significantly affect the speed and depth of this process.

In this context, the realistic scenario for Turkey is to concentrate on the integration (annular model) formula or partial membership which does not rule out a possible full membership in the future. This model differs from the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s suggestion of “privileged membership”. Merkel’s offer does not allow full membership. The said model, however, does not rule out the possibility of full membership yet suggests a limited membership for the near future. Another characteristic of the model is that it suggestsTurkey’s equal participation in the decision-making processes of her membership areas, but differs both from Merkel’s privileged membership and from the relations thatSwedenandNorwayhave with the EU today. Besides, a “second-class membership” accusation against such a model is baseless.Turkeywill be pro-active while conducting the process and the accusation of “second-class membership” is as much unrealistic as the same accusation directed againstBritainandDenmark, for not joining in all membership areas.

In addition, developing alternative alliance and cooperation systems, without ruling out current institutional alliance systems of Turkey, is a requisite for Turkey both to have a more peaceful relation with her own identity, to act more comfortably in foreign policy, and to have a growing economy. Noteworthy steps have been taken in the last decade. Without harming the relations with the West,Turkeyhas developed closer links with numerous institutions and countries, and in different formats, varying from the Gulf Cooperation Council, to the African League, fromRussiato the Arab League.Turkeymight exhibit a similar approach in the presence of the SCO and develop a type of relation with the organization in a way not to harm her current institutional ties with the EU, NATO and the West.

In conclusion, it is misleading to interpret types of foreign relations ofTurkeyonly through norms, and a limited instrumental look may obstruct one to see the entire picture. This introduces a potential for heavy political cost rather than a targeted political gain. Therefore, a foreign policy with a strong political rationale should equally concentrate on both a limited membership format with the EU, without ruling out a possible full membership, and on searches of new alliance systems to diversifyTurkey’s current institutional alliance system, without excluding the old ones.

Translated by Handan Öz


About Author

Galip Dalay works as a researcher in the political-research department at the SETA Foundation in Turkey, and is the book-review editor of the quarterly magazine Insight Turkey. He contributes to the German Marshall Fund’s policy-brief series on Turkey, the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, the World Politics Review, Fair Observer, and Turkey’s major daily newspapers.

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