Shanghai Blues, the European Union and Kerry’s Turkey visit

Shanghai Blues, the European Union and Kerry’s Turkey visit

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Europe and Turkey at a time when EU-Turkish relations are at a stalemate and in desperate need of revival. U.S. efforts will be critical to breaking the stalemate at a time when Turkey is actively looking for alternatives, out of frustration, including the idea of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The U.S. could highlight the strategic value of Turkey to the West, especially in economic terms, as well as introduce the idea of including Turkey in an eventual Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP):Relations between Turkey and the EU turned sour soon after official accession talks started in 2005. Technically, for Turkish accession to be completed, 33 chapters representing the EU acquis, (the corpus of EU laws and policies), have to be negotiated and closed. So far, only 13 chapters have been opened while eight chapters were suspended in December 2006 by the European Council. Another nine chapters are being blocked largely by France and Cyprus, but also by Germany and Austria. No new chapters have been opened since 2010.

This state of affairs has provoked a deep sense of cynicism, mistrust and resentment on the Turkish side. In an opinion survey published last month by the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), only 33 percent of those surveyed thought that Turkey should persist with membership in the next five years. It is not surprising that against such a background, the Turkish prime minister, complaining about the many years that Turkey has been kept waiting, exploded and revealed he had asked the Russian president whether he could help with Turkey’s admittance to the SCO, in addition to declaring that he is ready to give up on EU membership. This “Shanghai Blues” state of mind is particularly understandable considering that September 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Ankara Association Agreement between the then-EEC and Turkey, which promised membership to Turkey in due course.

What can Secretary of State Kerry do? He can make use of the traditional line that the U.S. has used since the issue of Turkey’s EU membership was taken up by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s: Turkey’s strategic importance. Here, Kerry would need to tread softly for his argument not to backfire and cause the Shanghai Blues to turn into a great requiem, as a European diplomat recently noted. However, compared to the past, the strategic argument has changed in two important ways that might well make it more palatable to European tastes. Firstly, the balance in world affairs has changed tremendously, and not always to the benefit, of those who have advocated a liberal economic and political world order. A Turkey that drifts away from the EU and gets closer to the SCO would surely impact this balance, not to the advantage of the West. Secondly, since the 1990s Turkey has become an important economic player precisely at a time when the EU is caught in a deep recession. Turkey’s GDP between 1999 and 2012 has grown from being the 9th to the 6th largest economy in the EU, surpassing Belgium, The Netherlands and Sweden. Re-engaging Turkey on the path of membership will undoubtedly benefit the Turkish economy, but possibly for the first time in EU-Turkish relations it would also visibly contribute to growth and employment in the EU.

It will also be important that Kerry involve Turkey in the discussions concerning the negotiation of an EU-U.S. Free Trade Area. Although seating Turkey at the negotiating table for TTIP would be unrealistic, he could convince the EU to at least recognize Turkey’s grievances concerning FTAs such as TTIP , which the EU signs without consulting Turkey. The customs union with the EU requires Turkey to take on all the obligations associated with such agreements, without binding third parties to extend any trade privileges to Turkey. Excluding Turkey from TTIPwould not only exacerbate the already poor relations between the EU and Turkey, but would also risk further nudging Turkey closer to the SCO. On the other hand, if Turkey is allowed to participate in TTIP, its economy will grow, which will in turn increase the amount it imports from the EU as well as the U.S. Furthermore, a Turkish economy that continues to grow would also be an economic engine for its surrounding neighborhood, in addition to increasing the demands for the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law within Turkey.

Kerry should also point out that the manner in which France and a number of EU member countries are unilaterally blocking the opening of negotiations on a number of chapters is undermining both the letter and spirit of “pacta sund servanda,” a principle central to western liberal values. At a time when much of the emerging world is increasingly facing a choice between those who advocate state capitalism and sovereign democracy on the one hand and the Western market economy and liberal democracy on the other, the EU’s reluctance to live up its own values and discriminate against Turkey on thinly veiled cultural grounds is likely to backfire. This is especially important in terms of the EU’s credibility with respect to the post-Arab Spring Middle East’s transformation towards adopting more liberal economic and political values.

Finally, while in Turkey, Kerry must remind the Turkish side of the very complex challenges facing Turkey and its neighborhood, and also add that Turkey must avoid policies that play into the hands of “naysayers” in the EU to Turkish accession. Turkey is much more likely to continue being an inspiring example for economic and political transformation in its neighborhood if it re-engages the EU rather than drifts away from it.
Kerry could also point out that sheer numbers and economic logic speak for themselves. The economies of the EU and the U.S. put together are at least three times bigger than the economies of SCO member countries combined. A more important point for Turkey to see is that a Middle East that has just experienced the Arab Spring in the name of greater freedom, prosperity and rule of law, is not going to be impressed by a Turkey that chooses to associate itself with an organization whose members disregard such values.

With these arguments, Kerry may be pleasantly surprised to find that he is not alone in Turkey. The painful events of 2012 in Syria, the difficult and increasingly precarious transformation process in Egypt and Tunisia (not to mention Iraq and Afghanistan), has once more reminded many in Turkey that an EU struggling with a recession may still be able to provide a much more stable economic and political security than any other arrangement. There is also growing recognition that some of the challenges of democratic reforms Turkey faces have intensified since the weakening of EU-Turkish relations. Indeed, by subtly raising his voice to break the EU-Turkish stalemate, Kerry could help to clear the Shanghai Blues state of mind and revitalize a process from which the EU, the U.S., Turkey and Turkey’s neighborhood would all benefit.

*Kemal Kirişçi is TÜSIAD Senior Fellow, Turkey Project Director, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution