When Turkey and Europe amicably dissolve their “Engagement Promise”: Champagne !!!

A friendly dialogue

Dr Atli’s reflexions merit attention. They give the reader as he proceeds in the reading, the feeling that he is party to a friendly discussion sitting with the author on a cosy terrace in Istanbul with the beautiful wide views over the rich historical settings around him. I cannot think of a better way to introduce the author than quoting his remarks while I make just occasional comments in response. While such a presentation suggests a direct discussion, such was – of course – not how it happened in reality. But it could, – as far as I am concerned,- happen at a future occasion, and we could then perhaps pursue the discussion a little further.
Does Turkey have to choose between Brussels and Shanghai?
By Altay Atli November 29, 2016 2:35 PM (UTC+8) Asia Times

Altay Atli: 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.


Anton : In European diplomacy in the last 20 years we had the strangest concepts circulating on Turkey. The idea of a Turkey “breaking away (from “Europe”, or from a liberal west”) is one of those ideas. High politicians were vociferously expanding on their fear that “Turkey could get lost” and need ed to be saved, and “firmly anchored” to Europe. Was Europe offering such a safe anchor, when we see European countries right now making their “exit” from some superstructures, which they see as too heavy for their national wellbeing? Can nations in reality “get lost” ? and cold that be prevented bhy “anchoring” from the outside ? Do they move left or right at will, or by weakness, like a ship in the sea under an uncertain captain ? Those were some European notions of the past decades concerning Turkey


Altay Atli: 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.

Anton : Thinking in terms of “either this or that” are not modes for good international relations. Freedom and flexibility should go together in the interest of our nations the nature of nations and of states.


Altay Atli :Turks’ disappointment with its EU accession process, which has been going on with little progress since 1963, is real and profound.
Anton: Disappointments were shared between both Europe and Turkey; “Accession” was a bridge too far. The exercise itself however did over the years give great benefits to Turkey.


Altay Atli: 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.
Anton : Wise words indeed. No damage-claims for broken wedding promises, in a situation where even some European countries feel a need to undo some parts of their own EU accession. Better solutions may come up for all.


Altay Atli : 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.
Anton : Fair judgment. In the circle of European countries we have similar feelings.


Altay Atli: 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.
Anton : Of course.The Silk road was not only a Chinese phenomenon, but also a European one, since the customers were in Europe. Resuming the old project may well improve many linkages stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.


Altay Atli: 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.
Anton : Quite reasonable remarks, shared by many Europeans, Turks and the Chinese.And in the development of further plans both material and value interests will have growing importance.


Altay Atli : 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.
Anton : ….and then, Europe, in whatever configuration it will have, will be interested and attentive also to Turkey’s proposals.


Altay Atli : 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 institutional framework would be the best for furthering relations with the EU, if full membership is not a realistic target anymore.
Anton : Well said.Nothing for me to add.


Altay Atli: 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.
Anton : Quite natural.


Altay Atli ¨After Erdoğan’s statements in favor of SCO, China has 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.
Anton : Excellent .I hope to hear in Beijing more about the SCO Energy Club in this current years 2017, since I have some responsibilities in the China Carbon Forum, now entering its tenth year of existence


Altay Atli: 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.
Anton: Quite understandably so.


Altay Atli : 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.
Anton : Indeed these energy and climate discussions may become a very good common project with SCO, Turkey and Russia, as well as the European countries. We shall be often together in looking at the best chances for the wellbeing of our nations


Altay Atli : 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.
Anton : These developments offer possibilities not Not only for China and Turkey but also for Europe, which takes part in the AIIB capital.


Altay Atli: It is also important for the Central Asian countries whose future lie in how well they can keep both Russia and China involved at the same time; and it matters for Turkey too, not only because of energy-related issues, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because Russia and Central Asian countries are major destinations for Turkish products, investments and construction services.
At a time when Turkey’s economic links to Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Markets are blocked to due to civil wars, terrorism and political problems, the Eurasian connection is more vital than ever for Turkey’s economy.
Europe is still Turkey’s major economic partner. According to 2015 data from the Turkish Statistics Institute, EU countries absorbed 44.4 percent of Turkey’s annual exports, and when the non-EU countries are included the share of Europe in Turkey’s exports rises to 54.3 percent. In contrast, SCO countries are sources of imports for Turkey, with Russia and China alone accounting for 21.8 percent of Turkey’s imports. Greater engagement with or even full membership in SCO will not lead to a reversal of this picture; Europe will not lose its status as the main export destination partner over night. Trade with Europe is the lifeline of Turkish economy, but SCO can offer other advantages for Turkey, most importantly as a formal, institutional base through which Turkey can improve its relations with member countries at the bilateral level, and become an integral part of the newly emerging economic structure in the Eurasian continent.
Anton : A useful remark on remaining chances for European – Turkish further cooperation.


Altay Atli : In addition to assessing what SCO can mean and what it can offer in concrete terms, Turkey also needs to revise its approach to the EU and decide, in mutual dialogue with European partners, what kind of a cooperation framework would be the best for furthering relations, if full membership is not deemed a realistic target anymore.
Anton : Here we go back to the beginning and to the essence. Let us give up an impossible dream and do more useful things together.


  • Altay Atli :Turkey needs the EU, and the EU needs Turkey.
    Both sides have benefited from this relationship, and severing the relationship would the worst decision that can be made.
    Anton : Easily agreed. Europeans looking towards the East and seeing the many interesting initiatives and developments, rather than “severing” will wish to develop relations with Turkey.

  • Altay Atli : However it is also clear that blind insistence on linking the process solely to the objective of full membership does not bring much progress either. A new model of partnership can be designed for Turkey and Europe, which would be less painful to implement, still serving both sides’ interests, and not making Turkish citizens feel humiliated, as they do after 53 years of waiting for an outcome that does not materialize.
    Anton : Europe’s first offer to Turkey on membership was a blind gesture, made by an ignorant generation of European statesmen. In a new situation we can think of better projects.


  • Altay Atli : Turkey does not need to choose between the EU and SCO. Not only have these two entities two different structures, one being a supranational economic/political union, the other merely an instrument for bilateral and multilateral cooperation, but Turkey can also engage each of them more actively without alienating the other side.
    Anton : A good conclusion. It looks also that the USA under a new president will not blindly push Europe towards the ill-fated “membership” goal


  • Altay Atli : This is, however, easier said than done, and will require proactive yet careful diplomacy on Ankara’s behalf. In the meantime, the biggest mistake that the EU (and SCO) can do is to demand Turkey to pick sides.
    Anton : Picking a general one sided stance in world-wide questions was for a more primitive age of diplomacy. Geopolitical views are now better informed.

Turkey Shanghai Cooperation Organization China European Union Recep Erdogan trade EU
Dr. Altay Atlı is an Istanbul-based academic and writer specialising in international political economy and international relations. He is a research associate at the Asian Studies stream of Istanbul Policy Center (IPC) at Sabancı University, and teaches courses on international political economy, international economics and comparative Asian political economy at various universities.
Dr Anton Smitsendonk is a former Netherlands Ambassador (to China,later to the OECD,) with earlier assignments in Yugoslavia, Italy, Brazil, the United States (two periods), Indonesia, Thailand. In Turkey he was by luck not Ambassador but councillor, and therefore in no need to propose champagne toasts to a speedy “accession” of Turkey to the European Union.


See further i.a. China and Turkey rev up efforts to strengthen ties ; 08-11-2016 21:16 :The World Energy Congress was a big win for Turkey ; 17-10-2016 21:11

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About dutasia

Former Ambassador of the Netherlands, presently National Commissioner for Thailand and for Indonesia in the ICC, the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Business Organization. Chairman of China Carbon Forum in Beijing, China.
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