The road from Brussels to Shanghai

The road from Brussels to Shanghai

Turkey’s decades-long relationship with the European Union is now in state of coma. The European Parliament voted the other day in favor of “freezing” the relationship, while Ankara responded in a “we-don’t-give-a-damn” sort of mood. The vote is not legally binding, and it will be up to the European Council, consisting of the leaders of the member states, to decide on Turkey’s future next month. 
I bet those leaders will not be very enthusiastic about Turkey’s membership either. But there is one card Ankara has, and that is the refugee deal between Turkey and the EU. President Tayyip Erdogan put this quite boldly the other day, saying: “If you go further, those border gates will be opened.” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also made the same argument in tweet saying that Syrian refugees would “invade” Europe if Turkey did not hold them back. (I personally found this language about an “invasion” quite inappropriate, as even some pro-government commentators did, but it still was helpful to get the point.)

Merely due to this refugee issue, Brussels might prefer to not officially end the relationship with Ankara. But it is all very clear now that this is a very unhappy relationship where the partners resent each other and know that they don’t have real a future. 

Why did we come to this point? Well, it is a very long story. First, there have been various mistakes on the European side, including a lack of understanding of Turkey’s complex drama. But secondly, and more importantly, the Turkish government took a bluntly authoritarian and nationalist turn in the past three years, seeing European criticisms as unjustified “interferences” in its “domestic affairs.” Hence a political movement that began its incumbency in 2002 with the promise of integrating Turkey with the Western world turned into a passionate seeker of “full independence.” That is also why it now sympathizes with the populist-nationalist trend within the West, epitomized most recently by the American president-elect, Donald Trump.

That is also why the Turkish government, and most notably the Turkish president, have their eyes on membership in a whole different union: The Shanghai Pact, headed by China and Russia, and consisting of Central Asian republics such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Needless to say, none of these nations are democracies. Some of them are among the most repressive dictatorships in the world.

Erdoğan tossed about the idea of joining the Shanghai Pact instead of the European Union way back in 2013, but only jokingly. This time, however, things look more serious. After Erdoğan’s suggestion of this union as a possible vision for Turkey, the pro-Erdoğan media began pumping up the volume. Meanwhile, China and Russia welcomed Turkey’s intentions and even declared it as the “2017 chair of the Energy Club of the Shanghai Pact,” making it the first non-member country to be so.

In other words, a Turkey that has cut all ties with the EU and has become a member of the Asian club of authoritarian regimes looks like a real possibility now. How we came to this point and took the long road from Brussels to Shanghai, is a sad story in itself. For practical purposes, all those who hope to see a freer Turkey should ponder how we can make this swing less radical and keep the damage more limited. Formulating a more modest but also more workable bond between Turkey and the EU could be a good strategy to pursue.