News / Middle East

Is Turkey Turning Away From the West?

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
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— A top adviser to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argued publicly that Turkey should stop aspiring to join the European Union and focus instead on carving out a leadership role of its own in the Middle East without paying heed to the West.

Writing in the country’s Star newspaper, Yiğit Bulut, a former journalist, argued on September 25 that “the West, or the imperial order” as he put it had in the past drawn a roadmap for Turks for its own benefit but that Turkey should “immediately get rid of the European Union scenarios”, since the country could instead take on the leadership of the “new world coming into being in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.”

The Turkish prime minister has been adopting an increasingly vehement anti-Western line in recent weeks and Bulut’s views are seen here as reflecting Erdoğan’s own developing position when it comes to the EU.

Turkish analysts are now speculating that Erdoğan may be about to abandon—either formally or informally—the country’s effort to join the EU. They say that would be consistent with the Turkish Prime Minister’s mounting irritation with the West over its failure to intervene militarily in the civil war in neighboring Syria, and his anger over Western criticism of his government’s hardline handling of last summer’s street protests in Gezi Park in Istanbul, in which half-a-dozen demonstrators were killed.

Grievances over Egypt, Syria and Europe

Erdoğan has also been indignant over the refusal of  the U.S. and some in the EU to condemn the toppling by the Egyptian army of Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi as a military-led coup d’état, scolding the West for perceived double standards and accusing Israel of playing a role in the ouster.

Bulut’s remarks come just days after Erdoğan’s Minister for EU affairs, Egemen Bağış, questioned whether Turkey would ever enter the European economic bloc, something it has aspired to for half-a-century despite repeated rebuffs from some key European states including Germany. Bağış, his country’s chief negotiator with the EU, suggested Turkey would never join because of the “prejudiced” attitudes of current EU members, adding that the EU is in a “process of dissolution.”

Political commentator Emre Uslu says Bulut’s comments are a further sign that Erdoğan is shifting his focus to the Middle East and Central Asia and even further east to China. “Erdoğan’s aim is to become a leader of the Middle East and he wants Turkey to become the new regional superpower. He is nostalgic about Ottoman ‘grandeur,’” argues Uslu.

Recent opinion polls suggest that Turkish voters are increasingly wary of the EU, with support for joining waning from 74 percent in 2004 to only forty-four percent now.  The shift in opinion is being seen as tied to rapid political and economic changes in Turkey in the past decade with the growth in importance of the Anatolia region, which is far more conservative than the more secularist Istanbul. 

When he came into power, Erdoğan was seen as strongly pro-EU, introducing a slew of political and economic-liberalization reforms demanded by the EU as a pre-condition for membership.

Observers say shift is a mistake

Some independent analysts criticize Erdoğan for his perceived tilt away from the West. “Turning east because westerners don’t like Turkey is to miss the bigger picture,” argues Barin Kayaoglu, a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University.  Writing on the news website Al Monitor, he maintained: “Turkey’s ability to project power in the Middle East is intimately connected with its prospective E.U. membership. Without that European outlook, Turkey is a weaker player in the Middle East.”

Turkish journalist and political talk show host Selcuk Tepeli agrees. He worries that by shifting away from the West Turkey will “lose its opportunity to become a big regional player able to help shape the post-Arab spring.” He adds: “Erdoğan is a practical politician but I worry he thinks of only today and not about tomorrow.”

E.U. accession talks have floundered for a quarter-of-a-century. Polls show most Europeans oppose the idea of Turkey joining, fearing a rapid increase in Turkish migration to their countries. Greek opposition has been stiff from the start with Cyprus—the northern half of which has been occupied by Turkey since 1974 – remaining a major stumbling block to further progress on the issue.

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by: Fred Nordblo
September 30, 2013 6:06 PM
It would be a mistake to push Turkey away from the West. Given the turmoil surrounding its eastern neighbors, this does not bode well for the stability of Turkey. That being said however, Turkey should not be allowed to violate international law with impunity as it does in Cyprus and with regard to the jailing of journalists. We (the West) want a stable democratic western oriented Turkey but not when it fails to respect the law or when its PM hurls insults at the EU and Israel. When you are looking to join someone's club, you do not insult their members, correct? I think engaging Turkey is the correct approach but a certain level of reciprocity should be expected. Turkey acts like the neighborhood child: if I don't get my way I'm taking my ball and going home.


by: Pros and cons from: NY
September 28, 2013 9:55 AM
European populations are falling. Europe will need immigrants. These immigrants can come from Africa or Asia. Where would Europe rather import people from?

Europe is very small continent. It has fought multiple wars for territory and resources. Why not add a huge chunk of Asia to Europe?

Turkey's economy is almost that of Canada, and projected to grow. If EU wants to rival NAFTA and future China economically, it will need growth and young demographics.


by: trying to live from: Sydney
September 28, 2013 9:46 AM
Nixos and Nebula. Spot on guys.

The architects of WW1 had no knowledge and the name for their mistakes is experience. French Champagne or English Tea?


by: Matt K from: USA
September 27, 2013 8:46 AM
Similar to the USA, a great majority of Europeans can't comprehend the long term benefits of Turkey's membership. They are looking around the Turkish immigrants who came from small villages in the 1960s and could not fully integrate and are concerned there will be more of them. On the flip side, Turks rightfully feel there is discrimination. Erdogan is using this to his advantage to further move towards the East so that he is closer to those countries with dictator like tendencies and he no longer has to be judged for human rights.

I think this will be a more of a loss to EU and the Turkish people than the Turkish government. It is also absurd for Greece and Cypriots not to compromise. Cypriots turned down the UN approved unification plan when Turks accepted it (although they were not 100% happy). By Greece and Cypress pushing back, they will end up permanently dividing Cypress into two. Turkey will eventually annex Cypress if this goes on.


by: SAS from: Atlanta
September 26, 2013 6:46 PM
I do not know if Turkey is turning away from the West, but if it is, then Europeans, with their long history of discrimination against those they perceive as being different from themselves can take full credit. They have never lost the opportunity to harp to the tune that Muslim countries have no place in the EU, while paradoxically whining about people who are seen as different fail to ``integrate'' in their countries.

Turkey has grown its economy rapidly in the past decade under Erdogan's leadership and has already proven it does not need the near bankrupt EU to succeed.

In Response

by: Nixos from: Turkey
September 27, 2013 3:45 AM
This is the only even if semi-balanced comment that appeared so far. I can sit down and compile a list of negative developments in any country in the world from Nigeria to the USA and from Australia to Russia. What would that contribute to our knowledge? Nothing. How would that help solve the problem? It will not. Politics and economics of the world change constantly. Look at the latest developments, for example, ragarding the USA and Iran. Did you expect it as recently as yesterday? NO. Turkey will continue to grow economically and politically in spite of its shortcomings because shortcomings is not all it has.


by: Davis K. Thanjan from: New York
September 26, 2013 6:23 PM
Erdogan and Turkey are in a fantasy land. Turkey can forget about the EU membership as long as the occupation of Cyprus continues. It is not just Cypress and Greece that object to the Turkish occupation of Cypress. The EU and the rest of the world does not recognize the Turkish action in Cypress. No nation has recognized the occupied northern part of Cypress as a nation, except Turkey. Erdogan should bridle his ambition of joining the EU. His aspiration to become a regional power is a myth. Turkey has hardly any mutual friend in the Middle East. Turkey has identity crises as a European, Asian or Middle East country. Turkey has the identity crisis as a Moslem nation or a democratic nation. Turkey is in the midst of crisis internally due to internal protests, suppression of freedom, free press, opposition and Kurdish minority. Turkey is weak to take care of the millions of refugees crossing from Syria and need external financial help. Turkey cannot take any action to stop the refugee problem, militarily or economically. Erdogan is dreaming about the Ottoman Empire. The power of Erdogan and Turkey are vanishing. Only the Turkish pride remains.

In Response

by: Denham from: NY
September 30, 2013 1:05 PM
Where is Cypress? Last I checked there was a cypress grove in the UK, perhaps the Turkish immigrants imvaded it, to your dismay?

In Response

by: Nebula Retina from: San Diego
September 29, 2013 11:32 AM
Believe me my friend it is the other way around. You Greeks, Cypriots and Armenians are in fantasy land. You people did nothing but arm yourselves with bad breath, foul language, and genocide lies for the last hundred years and now expecting miracles, while the Turks have been arming and getting ready for what is ahead. Also I'd like to remind to those who believe Turks are divided this and that, yes with each other we fight everyday, but when it comes to our nations security you will only hear ONE voice, and my that my friend is called Turkish Nationalism, come above all for most....Keep dreaming....

In Response

by: Rdivan Eser from: Afganistan
September 27, 2013 6:42 AM
I think you are one of a Greece origin person...i am serving in Afghanistan.No Greece soldier in here Just your old flag waving.Thats why Turkey has power...


by: Godwin from: Nigeria
September 26, 2013 1:51 PM
Turkey joining the EU is a setback to Europe. It will be more comforting if it withdraws. As for regional dominance in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, that is a pipe dream. Erdogan had better wake up from it because it is not realizable. He should not take Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood aberration as a yardstick. The Arabs and the Asians are not the same, and no one will be about to accept Turkey's domineering encroachment, especially under the present circumstances of belligerence with neighbors.

The EU should reject Turkey, it does not add value to European alignment, instead it draws it back with its Islamist agenda leaning toward fanaticism, even though some think Turkey practices moderate Islam. When the chips are down, Turkey is foremost an Islamist estate and sees nothing good outside islamism.

In Response

by: Nebula Retina from: San Diego
September 26, 2013 4:43 PM
Looks like your wishes may come true. There are serious talks behind doors in Turkey to put an end to it. Turkey played along because of the financial benefits and yearly aids but when it comes to turning over any kind of control over to EU I believe Turkey won't give an inch.
Today was also announced Turkey chose Chinese long range air defense system over US or EU offers. Keep pushing Turkey towards Russia, China and Iran that is exactly where Turkey will end up. And that my friend changes the equations beyond your capacity... Go back to playing with monkeys and leave the politics to people who gets it...

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