Shanghai Blues, the European Union and John Kerry’s Turkey Visit

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 out of frustration is actively looking for alternatives 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 and introduce the idea of including Turkey in an eventual Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The current picture is in some contrast to Bill Clinton’s visit to Turkey in 1999, where the U.S. played a critical role in contributing to the political process that announced Turkey as a candidate country for EU membership later that year. Subsequently, the engagement of Turkey by the EU culminated in unimaginable political reforms but also economic growth and transformation in Turkey’s foreign policy. However, soon after actual accession negotiations for membership started in 2005, relations began to turn sour between the two sides. 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. Croatia, which started accession negotiations at the same time as Turkey, completed them in late 2011 and will become a fully-fledged member of the EU in July this year. In Turkey’s case, 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 from among the three left have been opened since 2010, leaving Turkey’s EU accession process in a complete state of suspension. The causes behind this state of affairs are numerous, ranging from a deadlock over the failure to unite the island of Cyprus under the Annan Plan in 2004, to outright objections in Austria, France and Germany to the very notion of Turkish membership on the grounds that “Turkey is not in Europe”.

This 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 per cent of those surveyed thought Turkey should persist with membership in the next five years. It is not surprising that against such a background, an MP from the governing party, who is also a constitutional law professor, chose in protest to declare that the most recent European Commission Progress Report critical of Turkey’s democracy should be thrown in the trash during an October 2012 live TV debate program in full view of the whole country. Similarly, the Minister responsible for relations with the EU argued that since Turkey was now doing so much better economically than the EU, Turkey did not need the EU any more. However, he added, if the economically crippled EU wanted, they could apply to join Turkey as a member. More recently, the Turkish Prime Minister, complaining about the very long years that Turkey has been kept waiting in front of the gates of the EU, exploded and revealed he had asked the Russian president if he could help with Turkey’s admittance to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and that he was 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. As much as these reactions curried favor with the public at large, particularly the remarks of the prime minister, they were also received with considerable concern by many businessmen, columnists and experts in Turkey who questioned the wisdom both economically and politically of distancing Turkey from the EU.

What can the Secretary of State do? During his trip across Europe and Turkey, there are a number of arguments that Kerry could bring up to try to break the stalemate in EU-Turkish relations. The first one is 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. This is an argument that many in Europe have traditionally felt uncomfortable with and have even resented the U.S. for bringing it up. Here Kerry would need to tread his line softly not to turn the Shanghai Blues into a big 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. In 1999, when Turkey was recognized as an EU candidate, its GDP, at just below 250 billion USD, was the 9th largest among EU member countries after Belgium. By 2012, Turkey’s economy had more than tripled to 783 billion USD, surpassing Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden to become the 6th largest economy in the EU. Excluding Poland, Turkey’s economy is now almost larger than all the new member countries’ economies combined. Re-engaging Turkey on the path of membership will undoubtedly benefit the Turkish economy but possibly for the first time in EU-Turkish relations, would also benefit the EU itself. There would also be visible benefits to the EU in terms of employment and expanded Turkish FDI, especially in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania, but also in terms of enabling EU companies to reach markets in Turkey’s neighborhood and beyond.

In this particular context, it is of paramount importance that Kerry involves Turkey in the discussions concerning the negotiation of an EU-U.S. free trade area which are likely to be high on his agenda. The U.S. is uniquely positioned to help, although seating Turkey as an additional actor at the negotiating table for TTIP would be unrealistic. The U.S., however, could convince the EU to at least recognize Turkey’s grievances concerning free trade agreements such as TTIP, which the EU signs without consulting Turkey. This is critical because 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 TTIP would not only be a sure way to exacerbate the already poor relations between the EU and Turkey, but would risk further nudging Turkey closer to the SCO with all its negative strategic consequences. 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, the more Turkey’s liberal market grows, the greater the demands for the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey would be. Engaging Turkey in TTIP would have a positive impact equal to the opening of all the suspended and blocked chapters. It would also significantly heal the deeply entrenched mistrust Turkey has towards the EU, and for that matter the U.S. as well.

Beyond the revised traditional U.S. strategic argument in support of reviving EU-Turkish relations, 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 on the EU. 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 nature of the challenges which face 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 to be an inspiring example for economic and political transformation in its neighborhood if it reengages the EU rather than drifts away from it. Kerry can 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. A more important point for Turkey to see is that a Middle East which 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 reform Turkey faces have intensified since the weakening of EU-Turkish relations. In fact, when a survey conducted by EDAM asked experts in Turkey if the country should persist with EU membership, 87 percent of the 202 respondents polled said “yes” it should. This may also explain why early in February, both the Turkish President, while hosting his Serbian counterpart, and the Prime Minister, while visiting the Czech Republic, felt the need to unequivocally state that relations with the SCO cannot been seen as an alternative to EU membership. 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 benefit. This of course does not mean that Turkey cannot develop economic ties with SCO members.