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February 01, 2013, Friday

Shanghai or Schuman roundabout

The Schuman roundabout is a busy junction in the heart of Brussels's EU quarters. It is a popular place and very practical, too, in order to meet with local colleagues and make sure everyone ultimately enters the correct building. In the same way, first deciphering and then successfully navigating the EU's decision-making process takes time -- a lot of time. In light of what I would label the “Shanghai Debate,” could it perhaps be even too much time for the Republic of Turkey?

Only last week did I argue that neither would I want to see the United Kingdom leave the EU nor Turkey not become a member. At the same time, Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış was reiterating his country's ability and willingness to put pen to EU membership paper come 2018. Yet for a brief spell of time after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mentioned he would consider joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), apparently due to disillusionment stemming from a lack of support from Brussels for Ankara's proactive bid to become a full EU member state, all of this seemed eerily irrelevant.

I would argue Turkey has not indeed abandoned its EU aspirations. But it is also the fact that -- even if the SCO is not the most promising club of nations to join except for opening up new markets, perhaps -- for the first time since the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) came to power, a clear signal was sent to EU capitals, and the EU headquarters, as well, that playing with the sentiments of candidate countries is the wrong thing to do.

Let me add to this with a related subject. I recall a meeting with a leading Turkish expert in this field who back in 2006 had told me quite openly that the commissioning of public opinion polls in the country is still in its infant stages, along with the broad acceptance of their results. Actually, I heard that the government at that time itself was apparently not entirely certain about the usefulness of such seemingly academic exercises. Since the dawn of the current decade, however, both the government and opposition base many of their day-to-day policy-making decisions on what the electorate wants. Same as in all other democracies, it is a cumbersome balancing act between giving in to the ever-changing demands of the public, on the one hand, and on the other clinging to one's own policy preferences even if far removed from the voter's wish.

This government enjoys a rare form of having found middle ground. As it seems, its core policies catapulted it into power back in November 2002 and keeps it right there, as well. Nevertheless, in order to stay at the helm it must listen to what the voters have to say, too. And the majority of the population that have expressed their support for EU membership is shrinking.

The government has two options: to let this decline in EU support continue and ultimately face a majority “no” should a referendum about EU membership ever be held in the country or to try and reverse the trend and have at all times both a parliamentary as well as public majority backing Turkey's EU membership.

For this to happen, Brussels must play its part, too. Over the course of the next 24 to 36 months, not just one or two EU acquis chapters but most of the 35 must be opened and, once all conditions are met, closed. Only then can Turkey demonstrate whether it is really “EU acquis ready” and in turn can Brussels put its cards on the table and either let Turkey in or, in a very unfortunate alternative scenario, show Turkey the door.

Until then, Ankara may ponder thoughts about other blocks, trade or otherwise, with which it has interesting in cooperating more closely, although I never interpreted the prime minister's comments as abandoning his country's EU ship. Quite the contrary: He wanted to make a point vis-à-vis Europe by means of a windfall profit and if the SCO ever extends an invitation to Turkey to become an observer member, it may weigh the pros and cons in real time. The level of surprise or outright worries expressed from Washington via Strasbourg to other European cities underlines that no one wants Turkey to swap the Schuman roundabout for Shanghai. Nevertheless, Ankara will not wait another 50 years.   

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