Towards the Shanghai Five

Turkey's popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never ceases to surprise us. »»

Turkey's popular prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never ceases to surprise us. His recent bombshell was about the Shanghai Five. In a recent TV interview he was asked a simple question about where the government is on the EU process, and his response was blunt.

“The EU wants to forget about us but hesitates, and cannot really forget. But if it said what it truly feels, we would be only relieved. Instead of wasting our time, it should be open and explain, so that we can go about our business. You sit and talk with them, but they can't really do speak convincingly. When things go so poorly, you inevitably, as the prime minister of 75 million people, seek other paths. That's why I recently said to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin: ‘Take us into the Shanghai Five; do it, and we will say farewell to the EU, leave it altogether. Why all this stalling?'”

In a follow-up comment, he added that the Shanghai Five is “better, much stronger” than the EU.

What he said is not really new, for all those who follow his discourse and contacts. There were small reports last summer that Erdoğan mentioned this idea to Putin in a meeting with the Russian president. But this time Erdoğan put more emphasis on what he meant and put it into the EU context. This repetition only strengthens the perception that he has been elaborating around the idea and he will not let it go.

When I discussed these words with my colleague Cengiz Çandar over dinner, we agreed that Erdoğan, always being himself, means what he says. He did not utter those words to shake and stir Turkoskeptical parts of the EU, nor as a threat. He is, as he says, seeking new paths to place Turkey in a geostrategic context where its economic strength will match its political choreography. He reflects the frustration that Europe treats a member of the G-20 and the world's 16th economic power, now with a very powerful, stable middle class, as a second-class country and, in his eyes, very unfairly as a pariah.

Given the miserable state of the EU negotiations process, overshadowed by visa harassments, taken hostage by Greek Cyprus, which has abused its membership position to kill and bury UN negotiations for unification, and a mental resistance empowered by Islamophobia and xenophobia, you can not really blame him. He has not found much encouragement in his advances towards full-membership; he has only been met with suspicion.

Erdoğan's words will be spur two types of reactions from the EU: The skeptics will welcome it while maintaining the offer on a privileged partnership, and the others -- the European Commission and some member states with wisdom and far-sightedness -- will further urge for the quick revival of the membership process.

At this stage one point emerges as important: Two powerful economies on the western and eastern flanks of the EU domain are voicing clear dismay on the state of the union, as it is. Both Cameron and Erdoğan have expressed clear intentions, justified from their vantage points. The EU without the UK and Turkey will certainly be a very different, obviously very powerless entity -- much less of a world player.

What makes me believe Erdoğan means what says is the growing alienation of Turkish citizens towards the EU membership. He may have already read the fresh (December-January) survey of the İstanbul-based liberal think tank Centre of Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), which certainly overlaps with his EU discontent.

It has found that while one-third of the public thinks that Turkey should persist with her aim of full membership, the remaining two-thirds believe that Ankara should abandon the pursuit of full membership.

While 34 percent of Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters believe that the country should “persist with her aim of full membership,” this ratio falls to 30 percent among voters of the main opposition center-left Republican People's Party (CHP) and to 15 percent among those who give their votes to the nationalist National Movement Party (MHP). Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) voters are avid defenders of the EU goal with a support level of 88 percent. EDAM asked the same question to 202 foreign policy experts. They agreed overwhelmingly -- 87 percent -- that Turkey should keep its goal of full membership: a major gap of opinion between foreign policy experts and public opinion.

For the Europeans, there is much food for thought in all of this. “Who lost Turkey?” will have to remain on the agenda.