Although it has been on the agenda of Western media outlets since the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) coming to power in 2002, nowadays Turkey’s international role seems to be taken more seriously than ever before in European capitals as Europe struggles to recover from its own crises. Western media, scholars, academia and policy makers now give more thought to Turkey for sorting out its new foreign policy priorities. There are many reasons for Europe’s growing concern about and interest in Turkey.
For beginners, while Turkey’s main orientation since the last days of the Ottoman Empire has always been with the Western civilization defined as Europe, its foreign policy is now gradually becoming truly multidimensional. Economically, politically and culturally Turkey has developed closer ties with the non-Western world over the last decade. To give a few examples, although Turkey is a NATO member country, it holds military exercises with different countries, including China. Commercially, last year Russia replaced Germany as Turkey’s number-one trade partner. The Arab Spring opens up new opportunities for Turkey to reinvent its policy towards the neighboring region, although admittedly with some important risks. While Turkey’s trade with EU countries since 1999 is in decline in relative terms, the share of trade with neighboring countries is steadily rising. Thus there are many signs that Turkey is successfully establishing itself as a new axis in its direct environment, or, putting it in Ahmet Davutoglu’s terminology, while Turkey was once a peripheral state of Europe, it is now emerging as a central power in its region.
EU recognizes Turkey’s power with anxiety
It took a decade for the Western world and Europe to recognize that in fact Turkey has the capacity, political will and economic opportunities to redefine its strategic identity and international role. While acknowledgment of Turkey by the EU as a new political actor can be seen as a good sign for Turkey, some policy makers and scholars in EU countries, however, tend to interpret Turkey’s rapprochement with the non-Western world, especially with the Islamic countries, as Turkey’s rejection of the West. It is here that the debate on whether Turkey was lost by the West starts.
The discussion is found to be both attractive and sometimes disconcerting for the EU political elites. This is because as Turkey is doing well economically and acting more independently in international affairs, many EU countries in the eurozone are suffering from one of the worst financial crises in the global economy. Moreover, the EU political elites for the first time since the 1950s seem to be losing faith in the EU project itself as some southern EU countries almost came to a total collapse. For the time being, there seems to be no easy answer for the EU crisis yet, and this reality gives way to a growing pessimism in many EU countries, which creates a fertile ground for European nationalism in the economy and in politics.
In addition, not only the EU itself but also the hegemony of the West that dominated the world during the last four centuries in general seems to be in decline as new actors such as China and India gain ground and compete for more power and wealth. Thus, the economic crises and the loss of status in world affairs make the EU political elites more jealous and intolerant toward politically more aggressive and economically fast growing countries such as Turkey.
It can be argued that if the West in general and the EU in particular are to continue to lead the world as they used to, one of their great chances is to get Turkey into the EU as soon as possible. Since Turkey is both a democratic country and runs a free market economy that is in essence shared by the West, a young and dynamic Turkey will bring new energy to the tired economies of the EU. Those whose are not blinded by nationalism and who do not yet feel anxiety towards the world and Turkey, and who understand perfectly well the value of Turkey for the future of the EU, now realize that their call for Turkey’s speedy accession to the EU finds more listeners than ever before. It is this section of Europe that nowadays maintains the lively debate as to whether the EU has lost Turkey forever.
Last week, I participated in a two-day seminar organized by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin that focused on the EU enlargement toward the western Balkans and Turkey. One of the main topics was of course Turkey, and together with other participants we held fruitful discussions over Turkey’s prospective EU membership.
I should summarize that our European friends are closely following Turkey’s recent foreign policy initiatives and economic growth with a mixed feeling of both admiration and anxiety. However, as they learn more about Turkey, they seem more confused. On the one hand, they are talking about some kind of “Turkish miracle” in economy, but find it quite confusing why Turkey has good relations with Iran while having trouble with Israel, Europe’s beloved cousin in the region.
On the other hand, we as Turks really fail to understand their perception of Turkey and their unjust treatment of Turkey’s accession process. Some of them really think and hope that Turkey might accept “partial integration” with Europe, which is another way of saying “privileged membership” as an alternative to full membership.
Many of the participants from Germany tend to think that EU support in Turkey is weakening and that the Turkish political elites are now ready to give up their EU dreams, as the EU no longer seems to fit Turkey’s newly designed multidimensional foreign policy.
Turkey already lost by the West?
All in all that to them means that Turkey has already been lost by the West and that Turks are no longer willing to endure waiting at the door to the EU, and therefore we must discuss finding alternative formulas to work together with Turkey and the EU. Is that the case? Is Turkey really a lost case for Europe? How about Turkey? Do the Turks really no longer support the EU project?
To say that Turkey has totally lost its interest in and hope for EU accession is not the real picture of today’s Turkey. Public opinion polls repeatedly and consistently reveal that at least more than half of the Turkish population still supports EU membership. Yes, the support for the EU today is not as high as it was in 2004 because of public frustration with the deadlock in the negotiation process that was halted by political problems such as the Cyprus issue and France’s unfair attitude toward Turkey during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency. However, despite Turkey’s growing ties with non-Western countries, including such authoritarian regimes as Russia, Iran and China, and its increasing role in the Middle East, the EU still stays the most concrete modernization and democratization project for Turkey. If there is the slightest chance for Turkey to join the EU (and as long as the EU remains as it is today), Turkey will never give up its hope of becoming an equal partner of the EU countries.
Having said that, if the EU itself disintegrates for some reason or another, Turkey, as a growing economy (which is already the sixth largest in Europe and the 16th largest in the world) will likely emerge as a center of power in the region. As Turkish economic growth is widely based on export markets, Turkey will inevitably have to find or create new formulas to integrate into its neighborhood.
In the light of tectonic changes in the Arab Middle East, the Turkish model is already attracting increasing attention for emulation. Even in such a scenario, with its democratic regime and flourishing free market economy, Turkey will most likely be a sincere promoter of freedom, democracy and human rights in the region for countries from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula, and from the Caucasus to North Africa.
*Dr. Birol Akgün is an instructor at Konya University and an Institute for Strategic Thinking (SDE) coordinator.