Rising political tensions and struggles in Turkey, accompanied by mass detentions of famous journalists from the opposition media, and the Russian-Turkish collaboration on a new South Stream have been the focus of global attention to Turkey and have led both Washington and Brussels to criticize it severely. The distinguishing features of current Turkish foreign policy are increasing tension in relations with the West and a virtual revision of the established pro-Western consensus. Taken all together, Recep Erdoğan’s foreign policy steps and initiatives over the years have created doubt about Ankara’s adherence to its pro-Western orientation and roused suspicions that Turkey aspires to build a new Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s active interference in Middle Eastern affairs, flirtation with HAMAS, mediation of the relationship between the West and Iran, increasingly tense relationship with Israel, and unwillingness to follow the Western course in the struggle against ISIS—these phenomena logically lead to the perception that Turkey is becoming generally alienated from the West. They also force a revision in how we conceive of Turkey’s relationship with the European Union.

Despite a number of relatively successful large-scale reforms that the AKP has been pushing since 2002, Turkey’s chances of gaining full membership in the EU are diminishing. In the past 10 years Europe has not overcome its skepticism towards the European ambitions of Ankara. In fact, it has become more skeptical. This tendency can be explained: Turkey is consistently drawing closer to Europe through its institutions, while becoming more estranged in its mentality and psychology. In 2004 more than 75 percent of the population in Turkey were in favor of the country’s membership in the EU; in 2011 that number had dropped to 48 percent. Today, the number of people who support the development of relations with the Middle East and Muslim countries has risen appreciably. As numerous sociological polls show, both Turkey’s skepticism towards the EU and Europeans’ skepticism about Turkey’s emphatic aspiration to join the EU have grown stronger over the past decade. A recent Eurobarometer public opinion survey, conducted on behalf of the European Commission this autumn, revealed that only 28 percent of Turkish citizens support EU accession for Turkey.  This is one of the lowest levels of support of Euro-integration to have been measured in Turkey. Only a few months earlier, in May 2014, 38 percent of those surveyed in Turkey considered themselves EU proponents. Keeping step with popular opinion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared that “the EU has no right to give lessons in democracy and should itself ‘look in the mirror.’”  Following the 10th anniversary of the EU’s decision to greenlight formal membership negotiations with Ankara, Erdoğan made the emotional declaration that “they’ve been dragging feet over the last decade. Turkey will never be the European Union’s ‘doorman.’” 

The official declaration of the prime-minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in autumn 2014 revealed that Ankara still formally follows a course towards EU integration. Turkey applied for full membership in 1987 but official negotiations started only in 2005. Since then, only 14 of the 35 negotiable chapters have been opened and only one chapter (Science and Research) has been successfully closed.

The AKP government has not rejected the “European project” and still supports the cause of membership in the EU. However, the AKP’s decision to stay on course vis-à-vis full integration with the EU has already acquired a pragmatic and instrumental character, which pushes aside ideological and emotional dimensions. This adherence has helped Erdoğan’s regime to partially overcome accusations that it is dismantling the Kemalist modernization project and destroying the secular character of Turkey. Furthermore, within the framework of the administrative and political reforms mandated by the Copenhagen criteria, the AKP has managed to broaden its social base and cripple its opponents (the Kemalist elite and the army).

Both the obstinacy of Brussels and the intensification of Turkey’s domestic problems have forced the AKP’s leaders to change their rhetoric. Nowadays in Turkey, the idea of the “inherent worth” of the reforms originally designed in accordance with the Copenhagen criteria is becoming increasingly popular. This idea asserts that there is no causal connection between the continuation of modernization reforms and Turkey’s future integration in the EU. Erdoğan and other party functionaries never cease saying: “We will go on with the reforms even if the EU doesn’t send more encouraging signals… we will rename the Copenhagen criteria as the Ankara criteria… and the Maastricht criteria as the Istanbul criteria.”  These declarations reveal the specific character of the AKP’s approach towards modernization and Westernization—the AKP views institutional/technological modernization and cultural/ideological modernization as separate issues.

The drawn out process of Turkey’s integration with the EU is acquiring new dimensions. First, it seems far-fetched to imagine that the EU would be unwilling to grant full membership to a Muslim country. Indeed, Europe itself went through a process of “Europeanization” through the dissemination of a certain culture. Turkey has all the necessary capacities for Europeanization through its integration into all-European structures (following the model by which the EU Europeanized Spain, Greece, Poland, Romania and others). And, thanks to its common Byzantine legacy (in the Balkans and in Greece) and to its common borders, Turkey is historically very close to Europe.

The question here lies on another plane. The Ottoman model of modernization meant the introduction and adaptation of European technologies and institutions without the adoption of a European cultural identity. Such a utilitarian westernization failed to stabilize the Ottoman Empire and, instead, facilitated the decline of the Sublime Porte. The architects of the Kemalist revolution had before their eyes examples of unsuccessful experiences with modernization projects from both the Young Ottomans and the Young Turks. In his own modernization program, Mustafa Kemal put emphasis on both the utilization of Western technologies and the introduction of Western culture (“the values of modern civilization”). The Kemalist revolution was meant to impose on the citizens of “New Turkey” very different identities, to be based on the European values of laicism, individualism, human rights, the primacy of law, and civil society, rather than ethnicity and confession. The limited effect of Atatürk’s reforms and Kemalist westernization was inevitable, as those reforms represented a revolution from above that lacked a sound socio-cultural basis. The Kemalists focused on urban centers, with the result that reforms had very little effect on the non-urban population. Consequently, the Kemalist reforms resulted in the bifurcation of Turkish society into a Europeanized population living in the big cities (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, etc) and a conservative rural population which maintained Islamic traditions.

The AKP of Recep Erdoğan has been implementing a model of modernization which differs from the Kemalist one in many respects (including in attitudes towards westernization and to the technological and cultural achievements of the West). Now the idea of “New Turkey,” widely used by the Kemalists in the 1920s and 1930s (as in Atatürk’s famous “The way of New Turkey”), has become increasingly popular. But today’s expression of “New Turkey” has reflects a complete revision of the main pillars of Kemalist ideology. Turkish society is undergoing an obvious process of de-westernization. The political practice of Recep Erdoğan has demonstrated adherence to the values of European civilization and liberal democracy, but this adherence has a much more pragmatic and utilitarian character than a cultural and ideological one. In today’s Turkey, democracy is not the sole matrix for all levels of sociopolitical relations. From a long menu of democratic principles (political pluralism, equality before the law, due process of law, civil liberties, human rights, civil society outside the government), the AKP has chosen only a few. One of the chosen principles is free elections, because “elections… proved to be the optimal and most legitimate way of gaining power.”

Threats from Brussels in the context of rising political tensions in Turkey and mass detention of political journalists haven’t affected Erdoğan greatly. The emotional reaction of the Turkish president to the speeches of High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the EU Federica Mogherini or European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn reflected rather irritation than disappointment.

Erdoğan rates highly his own political sovereignty in both domestic and foreign affairs and strives to find a sound strategy to minimize the current risks. Despite resentment of the EU, which has become a common feature of Erdoğan’s rhetoric, and the current stagnation of Turkey’s accession process, the EU retains its influence over Turkey because of the Turkish economy’s great dependence on the EU. Indeed, Turkey has become an increasingly important trade partner for EU countries, but unequal economic interdependence between Turkey and the EU strengthens the EU’s leverage over Turkey. While the EU is Turkey’s most important import and export partner, Turkey ranks only seventh in the EU’s import market and fifth in its export market. The EU’s share in Turkey’s total trade is more than nine times larger than Turkey’s share in the EU’s total trade. Furthermore, residents of the EU are responsible for most of the foreign direct investment to Turkey (in 2013 more than 70 percent of FDI came from the EU). This presents Erdoğan with another concern, the potential impact on Turkey’s economy of an eventual common free trade zone between the EU and the United States, which is now in talks. Turkey’s customs union with the EU makes Turkey a part of the final EU-US deal, while Turkey is not a participant in the talks. Given the fact that any free trade agreement concluded with the EU opens the Turkish market to goods going through the EU duty-free, but does not grant the same duty-free status to Turkish goods exported to the country with which the EU concludes the free trade agreement, President Erdoğan’s concerns about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are obvious. Ankara considers the current situation an opportunity to revise its position in negotiations with both the EU and the United States. Turkey is on the way toward strengthening the “Eastern vector” of its policy. Today both Russia and Turkey have found themselves in similar attitudes: both Moscow and Ankara have recently felt alienated by the Western world order. And Erdoğan has calculated that he can realize his ambition to be a regional superpower through expanded cooperation with Russia and BRICS countries. The new Russian-Turkish initiatives can be perceived as a step away from the Western domination of the region. Besides, these new initiatives will also enable Turkey to increase its importance to the West in general and to the EU in particular (despite rising anti-Turkish sentiments in Europe). Germany has recently become one of the severe opponents of Turkey’s European integration. In both Chancellor Angela Merkel’s politics and rhetoric there is an evident intention to strengthen Germany’s position in Eastern Europe. However the new South Stream project, which Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Taner Yıldız called “Turkish Stream,” is designed to influence this situation. In the short-term perspective, Turkey expects to become an important energy hub for South Europe and play a role similar to the one Germany plays in North Europe. In this way, Turkey’s geopolitical position in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans is about to change. This, however, is not enough to alter the dynamics of EU-Turkey relations.

Pavel Shlykov is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Asian and African Studies, Moscow State University.

  • Pavel Shlykov