ISTANBUL— Several European Union countries recently reiterated their opposition to Ankara’s efforts to join the European Union, once again bringing its membership bid to a virtual halt. Then, last Friday in a TV interview, Prime Minister Erdoğan dropped what one commentary described as a diplomatic bomb.
Explaining that if Turkey's EU accession can't gain traction in the near future, the prime minister said he and his roughly 75-million citizens could start looking elsewhere.
“The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful than the EU and we have common values with them,” he said, referring to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a mutual-security and trade organization that groups Russia, China and Tajikistan with the Turkic nations of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Last year, the SCO upgraded its relationship with Turkey, naming it a dialogue partner.
Erdoğan's apparent tilt toward full SCO membership was criticized by Turkey's main opposition, which said Shanghai members have little interest in human rights and democracy.
But Erdoğan's comments coincided with a Turkish opinion survey which found only a third of Turkey's citizens still support Ankara's EU bid – a record low and sharp downturn from a one-time 70 percent approval rating.
According to Sinan Ulgen, head of Edam, an Istanbul-based research group that conducted the polling, despite the controversial nature of the prime minister's comments, he believes it will play well with the public.
"It's first time we have heard such a message from Turkey’s prime minister," said Ulgen. "But he is also well aware that with such rhetoric he is likely not to get a negative reaction in Turkish public opinion, given that more people now in Turkey support the option of discontinuing membership negotiations with the EU."
But as the Shanghai group is a security organization, analysts point out that any formalization of Turkish membership could compromise its established NATO standing, a point raised by U.S. State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland on Monday.
"Obviously it would be interesting, given the fact that Turkey is also a NATO member, so we have to see how that goes," Nuland told reporters.
But a Turkish foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is no contradiction and that his country is following a multi-layered approach.
Indeed, some Turkish commentators see the prime minister’s statement as more of a diplomatic ploy than a change in strategy, according to diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of the Turkish daily Taraf.
"There is a school of thought which says that he is doing this in order to put pressure on the EU," said Idiz. "'Look we don’t need you, you are going down, we are coming up and actually we have alternatives.' But a fundamental change in tack for Turkey would upset significant balances in this country and would be detrimental in the long run to the economy, so I don’t think it’s likely."
This year is expected to see both Brussels and Ankara re-energize the membership process. Erdoğan is due to visit EU countries next month, while both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are expected to visit Turkey.
Analysts point out that any serious progress in Ankara’s EU membership bid could easily reverse the current public antipathy towards that bid. However there is a newfound self-confidence in Turkey, built on its fast-growing economy, which means the country’s political leadership is aware that viable alternatives to EU membership exist.