ISTANBUL — The Turkish government is voicing increasing frustration over its stalled bid to join the European Union. Ankara is now warning that the country’s future does not necessarily lie with the EU. What is driving Ankara’s growing concern -- and does it have a viable alternative to the EU?
With Turkey’s bid to join the European Union stuck in the doldrums, the country's minister for EU membership, Egemen Bagis, recently said he believed it was unlikely the bid would be successful. Meanwhile, a senior advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an end to the bid in a newspaper article published Wednesday.
Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist and columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf, said Ankara is not ready, for now, to give up on its EU aspirations. But he but warns of the consequences of anti-EU statements.
"These things will remain at the level of rhetoric; those who [make] these sort [of] declarations probably think that they will gain good points in the public opinion by hitting at the EU," Aktar noted. "This being said, of course it's harming already-cool relations."
Opposition from some EU members has resulted in Turkey failing to open a single EU membership chapter in the past three years. That impasse has resulted in a dramatic fall in Turkish public support for the country's EU bid, according to Murat Bilhan, vice chairman of the Turkish-Asian Center for Strategic Studies.
"The distance between the EU and Turkey has widened during the last two and three years. And the Turkish population has given up looking at the European Union...according to opinion polls, not more than 30 and 40 percent [of the] Turkish people are supporting the idea of an accession of Turkey. So they don’t see that prospect," Bilhan said.
Observers said that with the ruling AK Party facing crucial local and presidential elections next year, an anti-EU stance could play well with voters. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could be an alternative to the EU. That regional security bloc includes four Central Asian nations with close cultural ties to Turkey -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan -- along with China and Russia.
But analyst Bilhan warns that given Turkey's NATO membership, hopes that it can have close ties with the SCO are unrealistic. "It [the SCO] does not want to embrace Turkey, because they see it as the Trojan horse of the West," he stated. "But Turkey wants to be in it as an observer, but even observer status was not given to Turkey."
Bhilan notes that Turkey and the SCO members stand on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. Observers point out that Ankara’s strong support for the Syrian opposition is not only at odds with Moscow and Beijing, but has also alienated Turkey’s neighbors Iran and Iraq.
Political scientist Aktar said Ankara is facing increasing diplomatic isolation. "All these search for alternatives have failed. Not only they failed, they are also now harming the existing strategic bonds of the country -- i.e., NATO and EU," he said.
Observers argue that such diplomatic realities mean that Ankara, despite its frustration, will likely continue with its bid for political union with Europe -- a quest that started five decades ago.