Turkey, Weary of the EU, Tiptoes Towards the Shanghai Five

Turkey's popular, charismatic and impulsive prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, never ceases to surprise. His recent bombshell was about Turky's flirtation with the "Shanghai Five," The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

In a recent TV interview Erdoğan was asked a simple, almost a "too shy" question about where the government is on the EU process for Turkey's full membership, 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 at the same programme 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 some reports last summer that Erdoğan had 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 larger EU context. This repetition of intent only strengthens the perception that he has been elaborating around the idea and he will not let it go.

Is this just a throwing of cards over to the EU table? I think not. 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, consumerist middle class -- as a second-rate country and, in his eyes, very unfairly as a pariah.

Given the miserable, paralysed state of the EU-Turkey negotiation process, which is overshadowed by endless visa harassments for Turkey's geometrically increasing passport holders; taken hostage by Greek Cyprus that has abused its membership position to kill and bury UN negotiations for unification of the siland, and a mental resistance empowered by Islamophobia and xenophobia, you can not really blame him. He has not found much encouragement among European cisrcles in his advances towards full-membership; he has only been met with suspicion.

Erdoğan's words will be spurring 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 his openj sense of 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.

"These are historical lows" wrote a liberal colleaguse of mine, İhsan Dagi, in a recent article in the reformist daily Today's Zaman. He went on:

Besides, there has been a structural transformation in Turkey's engagement with the EU, i.e., the economy. The flow of EU investment funds has decreased in recent years. Equally important is that the share of EU countries in Turkish trade has dropped steadily over the last decade. In 2003, more than 55 percent of Turkey's trade was with EU countries. This figure is now around 40 percent.

In short, the EU is losing Turkey. That is to say, the Turkish government, the Turkish people and the Turkish economy are all drifting away from the EU. And let me say, this process is almost irreversible. Those who care about Turkey's presence in Europe should do something about it before it is too late.

For the Europeans, stuck in a growing identity crisis, as and addition to the economic one, there is much food for thought in all of this.

"Who lost Turkey?" will have to remain on the agenda.