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January 27, 2013, Sunday

Turkey’s quest for a Eurasian Union

In 2002, when Gen. Tuncer Kılınç pointed to a Eurasian alternative to the European Union for Turkey, it become a laughing matter. It was interpreted as an indication of where the military -- in fear of reforms required for the EU membership -- would take Turkey.

Later, due to extra-military activities within the alleged Ergenekon crime network, Gen. Kılınç was put in prison and tried alongside many of his colleagues for plotting a military coup against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

A decade later, AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now seriously suggesting abandoning the bid for EU membership to become rather a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by Russia and China.

Was Gen. Kılınç a visionary or was he trying to divert Turkey's march towards the EU that, with its reform agenda, was threatening the privileged position of the Turkish military in the country's politics, economy and society?

I have no doubt that he and his associates were trying to stop the EU process that required democratic politics at home and the exclusion of the military from politics and opted for a Eurasian direction in foreign policy that did not set any precondition for democracy.

Now, is it true to say the same for Prime Minister Erdoğan? I do not think so. He is more of a pragmatist. Knowing that the process has gotten stuck, Erdoğan thinks that abandoning the EU will not involve political and economic risks: The Europeans are unwilling to take Turkey in, Turkey is doing economically well without the EU and Erdoğan's party no longer needs the European legitimization vis-à-vis the military. Besides, the prime minister wants to keep Turkey independent from Brussels and rule on his own, just like the Turkish generals once preferred. This is in fact the normal choice for those who are powerful in Ankara, be they generals or politicians.

In fact, the attitudes of the Europeans are making it easier for Erdoğan to express his search for an alternative to the EU, so much so that for the first time he stated very seriously and clearly that Turkey under his government is prepared to abandon the EU altogether. Calling on the EU to stop stalling the process, Erdoğan said: "We have a strong economy. I told Russian President Mr. [Vladimir] Putin, ‘You should include us in the Shanghai Five and we will say farewell to the European Union.' The Shanghai Five is much better-off economically. It is much more powerful. We told them if you say come, we will. Pakistan wants to join and so does India. They have also made requests. We could all join together. In terms of population and markets, this organization significantly surpasses the European Union in every way."

These are very sincere words. He considers the Shanghai organization as an alternative, in fact a powerful and better alternative to the EU. Besides this, I think it is also seen as a matter of “civilizational belonging.” The Turkish prime minister increasingly emphasizes “our own civilization,” referring to the Islamic one. Detachment from the West/EU is expected to “revive” the civilization Turkey represents and leads. There is certainly a growing self confidence that Turkey can and should remain independent to lead instead of tied up with the EU. The SCO is such a network that will give Turkey a civilizational distinction, economic capacity and a free hand to conduct its foreign affairs to fulfill leadership aspirations.

It will be a mistake to consider this as the government's orientation alone. The Turkish public's disappointment with the EU is very clear. Only 20 percent of the people regard EU membership as possible and only 40 percent support Turkey's EU membership objective. These are historical lows.

Besides, there has been a structural transformation in Turkey's engagement with the EU, i.e., the economy. The flow of EU investment funds has decreased in recent years. Equally important is that the share of EU countries in Turkish trade has dropped steadily over the last decade. In 2003, more than 55 percent of Turkey's trade was with EU countries. This figure is now around 40 percent.

In short, the EU is losing Turkey. That is to say, the Turkish government, the Turkish people and the Turkish economy are all drifting away from the EU. And let me say, this process is almost irreversible. Those who care about Turkey's presence in Europe should do something about it before it is too late.

Previous articles of the columnist