From European Union to club of dictators?

From European Union to club of dictators?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan initiated yet another public discussion last week with an unexpected remark. During a TV interview focusing on foreign policy, he suddenly said:

“Recently during my visit to Russia I joked with Putin. I said, ‘You poke fun at us, occasionally asking what business we have in the EU. Then let me poke fun at you. Include us in the Shanghai Five and we will give up on the EU.’”

The “Shanghai Five” Erdoğan referred to is actually the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It was founded in 2001 by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan and later took Uzbekistan on board. Looking at this list, one might conclude that the SCO could be a good partner for Turkey in terms of trade and investment. However, in political terms, there is an obvious problem: all of these countries are dictatorships. One of them, Uzbekistan, is even one of the most brutal and oppressive tyrannies in the world.

In other words, imagining the SCO as an alternative to the European Union does not say great things about the possible direction Ankara is heading in. If Erdoğan is really serious about this, then we are in trouble. No wonder Turkey’s EU-oriented political commentators have been ringing the alarm bells ever since the “Shanghai option” hit the headlines.

On the other hand, there is an equal possibility that Erdoğan perhaps only wants to give a message to European leaders and remind them that Ankara is not “optionless” if they keep on keeping Turkey at bay. After all, the very sluggish EU accession process has become frustrating for not just Erdoğan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), but also the majority of Turkish society. A recent study conducted by EDAM, a Turkish think tank, shows that the level of Turkish support for the accession process has fallen to just 30 percent of the population, while the same figure was around 70 percent a decade ago.

The reason for this dramatic disinterest in the EU is not any “Islamization” of Turkish society or state, as some might assume. (One proof is that according to EDAM figures, EU supporters among the voters of the “Islamist” AKP are slightly higher than the same group among the voters of the ultra-secularist Republican People’s Party - CHP.) The real reason is the cold, unwelcoming attitude of some EU-member states, such as France, and the growingly diminishing attraction of Europe as an economic power.

The same theme – economy – is also the reason why Turkey is opening up to “the East,” and why Erdoğan is contemplating putting a foot in the SCO. The centers of economic power are slowly, but gradually, moving from the West to the East, and Turkey is only adapting to the signs of the times.

However, here is a challenge that lies before not just Turkey but also other rising powers. For a long time, the West was the center of both capitalist development and liberal democracy. Therefore “Westernization” implied both prosperity and political openness. In the brave new world of today, though, authoritarian regimes such as China are creating economic miracles, implying to others that they, too, could have prosperity without relying on democracy.

My take on such a post-Western world would be to globalize economically but stick with the West politically. Make business with Shanghai, in other words, but still get your political norms from Brussels. And I very much hope that Erdoğan, when he is not joking but thinking strategically, would not disagree.