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Published on April 13th, 2012 | by Claudia Mancini
Image © [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="567" caption="Where east meets west, but on which side does Turkey's future lie? © maistora"][/caption]   After a visit to Ankara, the members of a cross-party select committee of British MPs issued a statement in support of Turkey’s bid to join the EU. The statement basically reaffirmed the long-held British position about Turkey's European candidature, but also included a warning about the state of human rights in the Anatolian country. Moreover, the committee called for closer economic ties between Turkey and the UK and proposed a partial reform of the VISA regime in order to promote mobility. What the report did not address, however, is whether, and to what extent, EU membership can still be considered one of Ankara's political priorities. Recent political and economic developments in the country seem to point in a completely different direction, and it is now legitimate to question not only Turkey’s commitment to EU accession, but also the real possibility of a successful and beneficial integration of the Middle Eastern country into European institutions. For decades EU accession, together with strong ties with the US and NATO membership, had constituted the backbone of Turkey’s Western-oriented foreign policy. Positive relations with the West and the country’s secular establishment had actually been the two key features that set Turkey apart from the other Arab and Islamic states in the region. This fundamental strategic orientation started to change with the advent to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) last June; the new government, well aware of the evolving political environment both at the regional and at the global level, launched a “neo-ottoman” policy, aimed at regaining the status of regional power. The steps of the new, non-aligned foreign policy strategy included a distancing act from the US during the preparation of the Iraq war, tense relations with the State of Israel, a non-confrontational approach towards controversial regimes in the Middle Eastern region. This last strategy was dubbed the policy of “zero problems with neighbours” and led the Turkish government to establish peaceful and productive relations with surrounding states. The ability to navigate the agitated seas of Middle Eastern diplomacy managing, rather than confronting potential threats, coupled with a booming economy, were the deciding factors in establishing Turkey as a very strong candidate for a role of regional power. Lately, the yearning for regional hegemony has led the Turkish government to relax the “zero problems” principle, and to embrace a more confrontational attitude, especially towards its main competitor, Iran. The desire to safeguard security and stability in the Middle East, coupled with the need to undermine any potential ally of the Shiite Iranian Ayatollahs, pushed Ankara to take back its support to the Syrian and Bahraini regimes, while relations with Teheran became more and more tense. Still, the Turkish government remains committed to presenting itself as a champion of the Arab cause and a model of Muslim democracy. The efforts to mediate between Iran and the West on the nuclear issue are definite proof of the central role the country has acquired in the region, and of the success of the non-aligned, neo-Ottoman foreign policy. This very success now makes us question the future of Turkey's EU bid. It is very difficult to envisage how Turkey could manage to consolidate its role as a regional hegemon, without further distancing itself from the West. Not only would EU membership, in fact, entail integration in the developing European common foreign policy, and the necessity to play second fiddle to European major powers, but it would inevitably lead to a loss of influence over other Arab countries in the region. At present, the Turkish government does not seem willing to gamble its regional role in order to join the European club. A key factor in determining Turkey's future international strategy will be the evolution of the crisis gripping the European Union. A stronger Europe would inevitable tempt the Turkish government, especially in case of a significant slow down of domestic economic growth. Given the many threats arising in the Middle Eastern region, however, the possibility of Turkey giving up its EU bid is definitely not a terrifying prospect. All in all, a powerful Turkey allied with the West but capable of acting as a strong regional leader would probably constitute a very welcome outcome, both in Brussels and in Washington.

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Turkey: EU membership or regional leadership?

Where east meets west, but on which side does Turkey's future lie? © maistora

 

After a visit to Ankara, the members of a cross-party select committee of British MPs issued a statement in support of Turkey’s bid to join the EU. The statement basically reaffirmed the long-held British position about Turkey’s European candidature, but also included a warning about the state of human rights in the Anatolian country. Moreover, the committee called for closer economic ties between Turkey and the UK and proposed a partial reform of the VISA regime in order to promote mobility. What the report did not address, however, is whether, and to what extent, EU membership can still be considered one of Ankara’s political priorities. Recent political and economic developments in the country seem to point in a completely different direction, and it is now legitimate to question not only Turkey’s commitment to EU accession, but also the real possibility of a successful and beneficial integration of the Middle Eastern country into European institutions.

For decades EU accession, together with strong ties with the US and NATO membership, had constituted the backbone of Turkey’s Western-oriented foreign policy. Positive relations with the West and the country’s secular establishment had actually been the two key features that set Turkey apart from the other Arab and Islamic states in the region. This fundamental strategic orientation started to change with the advent to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) last June; the new government, well aware of the evolving political environment both at the regional and at the global level, launched a “neo-ottoman” policy, aimed at regaining the status of regional power. The steps of the new, non-aligned foreign policy strategy included a distancing act from the US during the preparation of the Iraq war, tense relations with the State of Israel, a non-confrontational approach towards controversial regimes in the Middle Eastern region. This last strategy was dubbed the policy of “zero problems with neighbours” and led the Turkish government to establish peaceful and productive relations with surrounding states. The ability to navigate the agitated seas of Middle Eastern diplomacy managing, rather than confronting potential threats, coupled with a booming economy, were the deciding factors in establishing Turkey as a very strong candidate for a role of regional power.

Lately, the yearning for regional hegemony has led the Turkish government to relax the “zero problems” principle, and to embrace a more confrontational attitude, especially towards its main competitor, Iran. The desire to safeguard security and stability in the Middle East, coupled with the need to undermine any potential ally of the Shiite Iranian Ayatollahs, pushed Ankara to take back its support to the Syrian and Bahraini regimes, while relations with Teheran became more and more tense. Still, the Turkish government remains committed to presenting itself as a champion of the Arab cause and a model of Muslim democracy. The efforts to mediate between Iran and the West on the nuclear issue are definite proof of the central role the country has acquired in the region, and of the success of the non-aligned, neo-Ottoman foreign policy.

This very success now makes us question the future of Turkey’s EU bid. It is very difficult to envisage how Turkey could manage to consolidate its role as a regional hegemon, without further distancing itself from the West. Not only would EU membership, in fact, entail integration in the developing European common foreign policy, and the necessity to play second fiddle to European major powers, but it would inevitably lead to a loss of influence over other Arab countries in the region. At present, the Turkish government does not seem willing to gamble its regional role in order to join the European club.

A key factor in determining Turkey’s future international strategy will be the evolution of the crisis gripping the European Union. A stronger Europe would inevitable tempt the Turkish government, especially in case of a significant slow down of domestic economic growth. Given the many threats arising in the Middle Eastern region, however, the possibility of Turkey giving up its EU bid is definitely not a terrifying prospect. All in all, a powerful Turkey allied with the West but capable of acting as a strong regional leader would probably constitute a very welcome outcome, both in Brussels and in Washington.

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