At a time when the relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) have hit an all time low, with the European Parliament voting in favor of freezing accession talks with Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks that Turkey “should not be fixated on the idea of joining the EU” and consider “other opportunities such as the Shanghai Five” have reignited the debate whether Turkey is breaking away from the liberal West and moving towards the authoritarian East.
Not only is this debate not new, it is actually going on since at least the late 18th century beginnings of Ottoman modernization, it also often misses the point that Turkey can be, and in fact is, a part of both the West and the East at the same time. This is not a choice; rather a condition determined by Turkey’s geographical position, history, economy, cultural currents, and the amalgam of values its eighty million strong population is adhering to.
Turks’ disappointment with its EU accession process, which has been going on with little progress since 1963, is real and profound. It is, however, also true, that although full membership is nowhere in sight for Turkey, the EU anchor has significantly contributed to Turkey’s development, in terms of democratization, economic progress, cultural dialogue and exchange. Giving up these gains would do no good for Turkey, but at the same time Turkey also feels the need to improve its options and leverage, and avoid excessive dependence on any one actor politically and economically. Greater and more formal engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and its member countries makes sense in this respect, and it does not necessarily mean breaking ties with Europe.
Turkey does not have to choose between Brussels and Shanghai, as it can reach out to both. This is also not about choosing material benefits over values, because Turkey has economic interests and shared values with both sides. What Turkey has to do is to figure out how to maintain favorable relations with both the West and the East, within the boundaries determined by the country’s capacities, in an optimal way without alienating old friends while making new ones. Under current circumstances, this requires two tasks: First, to determine what real value there is for Turkey in greater engagement with the SCO through full membership or in any other format. Second, to decide what kind of an institutional framework would be the best for furthering relations with the EU, if full membership is not a realistic target anymore.
Turkey is already a dialogue partner of SCO since 2012, and Ankara’s intention to be more active in the organization, if possible through full membership, cannot be interpreted only as a signal to the West, because there are also expected material gains for Turkey in doing so. Neither of the heavyweights of SCO has lost any time in making clear in an explicit way that Turkey should see benefits in their club. After Erdoğan’s statements in favor of SCO, both Beijing and China have immediately given the green light for Turkey’s membership, and more importantly, the governing body of the organization has unanimously elected Turkey as the chair of the SCO Energy Club in 2017; the first time that a non-full member country is elected to chair the organization’s energy coordination mechanism that brings together the some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon consumers and producers.
Over the past few years, despite all the political ups and downs, Turkey has been conducting active energy diplomacy with both China and Russia, in nuclear, solar and coal power with the former, and gas pipelines with the latter. The value of chairing SCO’s energy club for Turkey in this respect cannot be denied. In the meantime, Russia and China are making efforts to integrate their mutual projects in the Eurasian continent, such as Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, China’s One Belt, One Road Project and also the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, where both Russia and Turkey are already founding members.
All these projects aim to increase the economic potential on an axis between the eastern coast of China and the frontiers of Eastern Europe, and the target regions they cover geographically overlap to a large extent. In May 2015, when Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping shook hands in the Kremlin and declared that “the integration of the Eurasian Economic Union and Silk Road projects means reaching a new level of partnership (between the two countries) and actually implies a common economic space on the continent,” their motivation was to secure mutual gains by making sure that the two countries’ projects in Eurasia supplemented each other establishing a balanced economic structure, instead of having competing projects, which would most likely lead to sub-optimal or even destructive outcomes. What Putin and Xi called a “common economic space” is vital for them at a time when Russia is facing economic dire straits due to Western sanctions and low hydrocarbon prices, and China is making efforts to keep its economic slowdown under control.
Turkey Could Join SCO as Alternative to EU Membership
“We are currently seeing an increase in tensions between Turkey and the EU,” the expert told Sputnik Turkey. “EU countries started discussions about whether the European Union needs Turkey.” In November, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling to end the negotiations with Turkey on its accession to the EU. With her statement Merkel principally backed this resolution.
“The European Union is not the only alternative for us. Yes, Turkey has been trying to become an EU member for years, and so far it has become a candidate for membership in this organization. There were negotiations. However, there must be mutual interest in such negotiations. The EU doesn’t treat us as equals and puts forward unacceptable conditions,” Mugisuddin said. According to the expert, one of the most realistic and favorable alternatives for Ankara could be cooperation with the SCO and Turkey’s further integration into this Eurasian organization. “In such circumstances, the expansion of cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a very attractive alternative for Turkey. Turkey is very serious about the SCO. Ankara understands that the ‘Shanghai Five’ have a great future. At the same time, it is clear that every international institution has its own rules, its pros and cons. All this must be carefully weighed,” Mugisuddin concluded. Earlier this week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara is considering joining the six-member bloc including Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkey now has a dialogue partner status in the organization.