Turkey–European Union relations were frozen while Cyprus held the rotating EU presidency during the second half of 2012. In those six months, no progress was made in Turkey’s European integration, and very few official visits took place between Turkish and EU delegations. Signifying the tense relationship, in November, ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy, Professor Burhan Kuzu, the head of the parliamentary Constitution Commission, harshly criticized the EU progress report on Turkey. He dramatically threw it into a trashcan on national television to show his government’s disappointment with the EU and with Cyprus’s presidency (CNNTurk, November 11, 2012).
As Turkey and the EU slowed down the accession process in recent years, Turkish public opinion adopted a negative outlook toward the EU. In a recent Turkish opinion poll, survey participants were asked: “What should Turkey do regarding EU membership in the next five years?” Two thirds of Turks responded that Turkey should quit trying to be a member of the EU altogether. Only 33 percent of respondents believed that Turkey should insist on full membership status (edam.org.tr, January 22).
However, since the rotating presidency passed to Ireland at the start of this year, Turkey’s government has once again shown a willingness to work with the EU. The Turkish Minister for EU Relations Egemen Bagis went to Dublin on a diplomatic visit last week (January 22). In Dublin Bagis stated, “Turkey had not attended EU meetings for six months as the [rotating] EU presidency had been hold by a country—Cyprus—not recognized by Turkey.” Moreover, he recalled that “no candidate countries had been invited to EU Summits for a long time” (Anadolu Ajansi, January 22). Egemen Bagis declared that during the presidency of Ireland, Turkey intends to open at least one chapter to discuss with the EU as part of the accession process (Sabah, January 27).
Turkey’s first priority for the next few years appears to be to focus on visa-free travel whereby Turkish citizens are no longer required to obtain a Schengen visa to enter the EU. Minister Bagis recently wrote an op-ed piece for the neurope.eu website stressing, “There is one issue that has been on top of our agenda still pending to be resolved: the Schengen visa [preventing the] free travel of Turkish citizens.” In that article Minister Bagis argues, “It is not fair. Turkey is the only [EU] candidate country, whose citizens are still subject to visas. Turkey is the only country that had formed a Customs Union with the EU without becoming a member. The products of Turkish businessmen can freely flow into the Union, but the owners of those products cannot freely travel” (www.neurope.eu, January 27). Meanwhile, optimistic reports circulate in the pro-government newspaper Sabah alleging that Denmark and Austria support dropping visa requirements for Turkish citizens (Sabah, January 27).
Yet, while EU Relations Minister Egemen Bagis has been traveling throughout Europe to seek support for revitalizing EU-Turkish relations, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened up a fresh Pandora’s Box during a January 26 TV interview, in which he said:
The EU process is constantly on our agenda. Egemen Bagis, our EU minister and chief negotiator briefs us on developments weekly at the Council of Ministers. We follow developments regarding the EU every week. The EU, however, actually wants to forget us; however, they are hesitating and cannot forget. We are not the ones that are undecided—the European Union is; whereas if they would just reveal their true intentions to us, we would be at ease. We could just look after our own business and go our own way. The European Union needs to stop stalling us (sabah.com.tr, January 26).
After this criticism, Erdogan went on to recall a time when he proposed that Turkey enter the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an intergovernmental mutual-security organization established back in 1996 as the Shanghai Five—then composed of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. When Uzbekistan become a member in 2001, the grouping was renamed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. During the interview, Erdogan continued, “We have a strong economy. I [previously] told Russian President Putin, ‘You should include us in the Shanghai Five and we will say farewell to the European Union’” (sabah.com.tr, January 26).
When asked to clarify whether the SCO is an alternative to the EU, Erdogan said, “The SCO is better and more powerful, and we have common values with them. We told them, ‘If you say come, we will.’ Pakistan wants to join, as does India. They have also made requests. We could all join together. In terms of population and markets, this organization significantly surpasses the European Union in every way” (Today’s Zaman, Sabah, January 26–27).
Some commentators think that Erdogan could not be serious regarding the SCO, and he is using the Russian- and Chinese-led organization as a stick to prod the EU with. But veteran Turkish analysts, such as Cengiz Candar of the newspaper Radikal, believe Erdogan is indeed being earnest (Radikal, January 27). Moreover this was not the first time Prime Minister Erdogan has brought the SCO issue into the Turkish political debate. Back in July 2012, when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan remarked, “Turkey would abandon the EU for the Shanghai Five” (hurriyetdailynews.com, July 27, 2012). At the time, Erdogan maintained his comments to Putin were just a joke (Vatan, July 26, 2012), but his latest remarks seem to suggest that he has been serious all along.
Whether or not Endogen was once again “joking” about Ankara giving up the EU in favor of the SCO, pro-AKP media outlets have nonetheless catapulted the debate into the public sphere. As a result, Turkey’s possible membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is now being excitedly debated at the expense of discussions about Turkey’s future in Europe.
Turkey has been criticized in the past for seemingly moving away from its democratization process and slowly turning into an authoritarian regime. Therefore, Erdogan’s statement about Turkey’s values matching those of the SCO is politically treacherous. Raising the SCO debate in Turkish politics may inadvertently negatively contribute to the international debate on whether Turkey’s political system is indeed becoming more authoritarian.