EU on the backburner for the AKP

EU on the backburner for the AKP

For those listening to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s address to his party congress on Sunday, there was little surprise in what he said concerning foreign policy. What he did not say, however, did attract attention. Erdoğan did not mention Turkey’s EU perspective once in his nearly three-hour address to delegates.

This appeared to suggest that this is not a priority issue for the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and its vision for a Turkey as it heads for the centenary of its Republic in 2023.

Erdoğan did not mention ties with Europe either, only referring to Germany and France in the negative when he used strong words to criticize Islamophobia.

The booklet spelling out the AKP’s political vision did contain a paragraph, however, indicating that Turkey remains committed to EU membership. But it is clear that this much had to be done for the sake of pragmatic political correctness. The EU was also mentioned in the list handed out at the congress, which itemized the AKP’s priorities in the coming period. Commitment to the membership process, however and tellingly, was item 60 in the list of 63 items.

Erdoğan’s emotional address, in which Islamic references were predominant, on the other hand, indicated clearly who he considers to be his natural interlocutors and for whom he and the AKP really have sympathy. The cities he sent his warmest greetings to covered an Islamic region that stretches from Baku to Sarajevo, from Arbil to Kabul, from Ramallah to Tripoli.

Turkey clearly continues to be dependent on ties with the West for political, economic and security reasons, and vice versa. However, anyone following Sunday’s congress would have gotten the impression that feelings are not the warmest when it comes to the West. The “Islamic flavor” of the AKP congress was also apparent in the profile of the foreign guests, who included Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, as guest of honor.

Even though Turkey’s global strategic and economic value is said to be increasing, it was noticeable that no Western leader in office was there to provide moral support for Erdoğan.

Whether this was because they were not invited or because they chose not to attend does not make much difference.

In either case, the absence of the West in what was billed as one of the AKP’s most important party congresses to date was glaring. The presence of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and a sprinkling of representatives from various European political parties – mostly Muslim members – did not alter this fact. The delirious welcome that Hamas’ Khaled Mashaal got from the delegates, on the other hand, underscored where sympathies really lay during the congress.

The EU is, of course, in a state of turmoil today and Turkey’s membership prospects are as distant as ever. The fact is, however, that Turkey’s EU perspective has been kept alive – despite all hurdles – because it provided a driving force for reforms in the past, even when membership appeared remote, and because Europe could not afford to decouple Turkey from the continent for a host of strategic reasons.

Needless to say, Erdoğan promised a lot of reforms during his address on Sunday, but doubts are increasing that reform to enhance democracy, freedom of expression, human rights and other matters can be enacted with the sense of urgency that is required without a push from outside.

It is obvious that such a push will not come from the Islamic world where Erdoğan is vying for leadership.

Clearly, however, Erdoğan and his supporters, who do not identify culturally with the EU anyway, are not concerned about this – especially when one considers that the AKP is effectively unopposed as it gradually unveils its vision for a new Turkey based on its own set of mostly religious values.