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January 29, 2013, Tuesday

The EU versus the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

A few days ago Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Ankara may decide to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which he suggested could be an alternative to the EU, stating: “If we get into the SCO, we will say goodbye to the EU. The SCO is better -- much more powerful. Pakistan wants in. India wants in as well. If the SCO wants us, all of us will become members of this organization.”

Perhaps the prime minister did not have time to read the SCO's Mission Statement. If he had, then he would have seen that the organization is a very different animal to the EU, not least when it comes to promoting democratic values, something Erdoğan always cites as being important to him. The SCO currently comprises Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- a group of undemocratic nations primarily driven by Russia and China, who continue to fight for influence and power in Central Asia, in particular with regard to the region's rich energy resources. Turkey has the status of Dialogue Partner along with Belarus and Sri Lanka.

For Turkey to join the SCO, Ankara would have to renounce its NATO membership, something it is clearly not going to do. Even if Turkey were serious, it is unlikely that Russia and China would welcome another big player with ambitions of regional hegemony and which has a long history of being a staunch ally of the West. While Erdoğan was no doubt just sending the EU a message that he apparently “has alternatives,” no one takes such statements seriously. What next? Will Erdoğan be asking to join Russia's Eurasian Union?

Ankara seems to be waiting for some concrete efforts from the EU to “reset” its stalled membership negotiations. To this end, there will be two crucial visits to Ankara in March: the first by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the second by French President François Hollande. While the visit of Merkel is important, Hollande's is even more so as Ankara is expecting him to give a clear statement of support for Turkey.

Turkey and France are in the process of trying to mend fences following a period of animosity under former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy strongly opposed Turkey's EU aspirations, blocking negotiating chapters, bringing Turkish-French relations to the brink of collapse. Sarkozy was only prepared to support the German proposal of “privileged partnership.” However, unlike France, Germany has not moved to block Turkey's EU negotiations, rather stating that the talks are open-ended.

With Hollande's election in 2012, hopes were raised that relations would improve with the talk of some chapters being unblocked. In December, Turkey's Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bağış said, “We are hoping that before he [Hollande] arrives in Turkey he will tell us the good news on lifting the block on at least two chapters.”

Unfortunately, 2013 did not get off to a good start. Tensions rose following the killing of three Kurdish activists connected to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Paris earlier this month. The fact that Hollande had met one of them put him in an embarrassing position, with Erdoğan demanding to know what the president discussed with an organization labeled as terrorists by the EU. Turkey's leadership continues to feel peeved that, contrary to the fact that the PKK is outlawed by the EU, some member states including France often turn a blind eye to the group's lobbying and fund-raising activities.

Turkey seems to have reached a crossroads of democracy. While the EU may be going through economic woes, it remains exceptionally unique in the sense that it is the only body that has been able to facilitate the building and consolidation of democracy in accession countries with its enlargement toolbox. While NATO has been able to go some of the way, its toolbox is not as broad. For Turkey to continue to democratize, it should stay in the embrace of the EU. While many hurdles still lie ahead, including the Cyprus issue, a helping hand from France will do much to rebuild trust in a relationship which is of crucial importance to both partners while also hopefully putting an end to such farcical statements as those we have heard related to the SCO.

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