Turkey’s EU bid Shanghaied?

Over the years, Turkey has managed to create its own niche in the global corridors

Turkey has threatened to turn its back on the European Union, abandoning a 50-year quest to join the bloc, even as Ankara’s relationship with the West cools amidst mutual accusations of poor faith, disinterest and incompatibility.

Angered by what it sees as a lack of progress in its accession process, a perceived reluctance by the EU to provide support to Turkey in the wake of the July 15 coup attempt and the EU’s failure to meet its commitments under a deal to dry up the flow of illegal migrants streaming into Europe, Ankara has indicated that it could look to the East for new friends and allies.

Ankara’s anger deepened on November 24, when the European Parliament voted in favour of a non-binding resolution to suspend Turkey’s accession process. -Citing what it said were falling standards in human rights and freedom of expression following the failed coup, the parliament called on Turkey to end “disproportionate repressive measures” against opponents and lift the emergency rule regime.

Coming hard on the heels of a report by the European Commission on Turkey’s progress on meeting membership criteria -– a document that featured the word ‘backsliding’ 14 times, in -addition to references to Ankara’s failure to advance judicial independence, freedom of expression and public administration reforms – Turkey’s government feels the road to Brussels is at best becoming longer, if not blocked.

Floating options

In response to slights both real and perceived, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan floated two proposals, both of which could see his country’s EU bid sink beneath the waves. Turks could be asked to go to the polls later this year to vote in a referendum on whether to abandon the country’s –
efforts to join the EU, the president said in
mid-November 2016.

Should Erdogan take Turkey to the ballot box to determine the future of its EU bid, the vote would likely be a close-run affair. A survey conducted late last year by the polling company Andy-Ar found that 44 percent of respondents saw freezing Turkey’s EU membership negotiations as a positive move, compared to 47 percent who were opposed. With a three percent margin of error, there is little to separate the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps.

Among those who identified as supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), some 58.8 percent were -positive about the prospect of halting membership talks, while voters for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) were 54.2 percent in favour of walking away from Europe.

One parliamentary bloc that is staunchly opposed to severing ties with the EU is the Kurdish-issue-focused People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which currently has more than a third of is deputies, including its two co-leaders, behind bars on charges of supporting terrorism and often looks to Europe for support.

The EU should speak out more strongly than it already has and look to take punitive measures against the government, rather than just pass non-binding resolutions, according to HDP deputy and foreign relations spokesman Hisyar Ozsoy.“We want the EU to oppose the oppression in Turkey, but we do not want the dialogue to be halted,” Ozsoy told TRENDS. “They have to understand that, yes, they should raise their voices, but they also have to act.”

He added: “They should apply sanctions that would target the ruling AKP or Erdogan, but should not have the whole process thrown into the bin.”

Even some senior members of the AKP are concerned over the consequences of turning away from the West.

Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek has warned against Turkey burning its bridges with the EU, lest it weaken its appeal as an investment destination. “A Turkey which is detached from the European Union will be perceived as a third-world country,” Simsek told a meeting of Turkish business leaders on November 10. “The more Turkey shows progress in terms of European Union membership, the more it will become attractive. We need to continue our EU process for our interests.”

The Shanghai high five

Erdogan’s other proposal, which he has said represents an alternative to Turkey’s European vocation, is to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the initiative by Russia and China to develop trade and defensive ties with each other and with countries in Central Asia.

Currently comprising Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, along with Russia and China, the SCO started life in 2001 as the Shanghai Five – a loose-knit security bloc aiming to bolster cooperation against regional terrorist threats.

Since then, it has made some progress toward becoming a trade grouping and has built up a network of countries with observer or dialogue partner status, including Mongolia, India, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey.

Offering up membership of the SCO as an alternative to knocking on the door of the EU, Erdogan said such a move would relieve Turkey of the criticism it has been subjected to from the West.

“Turkey must feel at ease,” he said in late November. “It must not say: ‘For me, it’s the European Union at all costs’. Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai Five? I hope that if there is a positive development there… I think if Turkey were to join the Shanghai Five, it will enable it to act with much
greater ease.”

Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, however, has been taking a more conciliatory line, saying ties with one bloc are not mutually exclusive of good relations with the other.

Contradicting President Erdogan, Yildirim said Turkey had not proposed membership of the SCO as an alternative to joining the EU, should its path be blocked. Turkey’s links with the SCO were not a threat or a challenge to the EU, merely a reflection of Asian nations wishing to improve their economic and political relations with Ankara, Yildirim said on November 24.

However, on November 30, Erdogan again made clear that EU membership was not a target set in stone. “We have not yet closed the European Union book right now,” he said in an address to a summit in Istanbul. “But nobody should forget that Turkey always has many other alternatives.”

Alternatives or ulterior motives?

Not everyone is convinced that the Turkish government is serious about pursuing those alternatives. The present ramping up of rhetoric against the West has more to do with drawing the attention of the electorate away from the downturn in the economy than any actual ire with Europe, says economist Mustafa Sonmez.

“The economic indicators are so bad that he is trying to play to the audience as if he is powerful against the West; he gives the appearance of challenging them,” Sonmez told TRENDS. “Talk of entering the Shanghai bloc is a show played to the audience in the stadium, the domestic audience; nothing to take
too seriously.”

Any move to loosen ties with the European bloc would have significant downsides on the Turkish economy, with membership of the SOC unlikely to bring corresponding benefits to offset the expected losses, said Sonmez, as Turkey’s economy is geared to trading with the EU.

“The EU represents 48.5 percent of Turkey’s exports – in other words, half of what we sell goes to the EU,” he said. “That is where we make our money. The Shanghai Five represents just three percent. If we pull out, how can we continue or sustain our production lines?”

Death knell for EU bid?

While Turkish officials have talked of holding a referendum on whether the country should continue along the path towards the EU, a much smaller vote could – if held – decide the matter.

In the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, there were widespread calls for the return of the death penalty to Turkey’s statute books after an absence of 14 years. The country had abolished capital punishment in 2002 as part of its EU membership process, as the bloc’s accession requirements make the death penalty incompatible with being a part of Europe.

Should the AKP government take a motion to the parliament to reinstate capital punishment, it would likely find the necessary majority to pass the legislation with ease, with the party’s own deputies seen as being in favour, along with those of the far right MHP. Erdogan has said repeatedly he would ratify any law restoring capital punishment, a move that would effectively kill Turkey’s EU aspirations without the need to resort to a national plebiscite.

Ticking clock

President Erdogan has said he is still waiting for the EU to show faith in its pledges to embrace Turkey. Among the signs of goodwill Erdogan has demanded is granting Turks visa-free status for travel into Europe, a promise made back in March as part of the pact that saw Turkey halt the flow of illegal migrants to the West.

Another is for the EU to provide the billions of Euros it agreed to give Ankara to support the roughly 3.5 million refugees now living in Turkey. Should those steps not be taken and should the constant criticism of Turkey emanating from European capitals continue, 2017 could be the year Ankara looks to spring its own Shanghai surprise.