Does Turkey need the EU anyway?

28.09.2021

Australia's scrapping of the French submarines deal constitutes a turning point in the strength and solidarity of the Western alliance headed by the US, which dominated the world stage following the end of the Cold War period and the formation of the Western-oriented world order.

Over the past three decades, there was a state of harmony and consistency between the US and its global allies, including European countries, Canada, Australia and others. This was represented in backing the US-led wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, and other hot files worldwide.

Turkey, for its part, sided with the Western camp in the Cold War period and in the early post-Cold War period, by keeping close ties and alliances with the US and Europe. In the nineties of the last century, Turkey exerted great efforts to join the European Union (EU), but suffered a long procrastination process. However, within Turkey's long waiting period, many changes and developments on the world stage took place.

In recent years, European countries, mainly France, began to realise how they were marginalised in the international arena when dealing with events such as the Ukrainian crisis with Russia and the differences between France and the US on dealing with the Syrian crisis. Similarly, the same can be said with the Iranian file, where the US position was the dominant actor in dealing with Iran. Last but not least, the US dominated the international community's approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even with the presence of the international quartet (the US, the EU, the United Nations (UN) and Russia).

New alliance

In a virtual joint press conference on 15 September for US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the latter announced his country's scrapping of a multi-billion deal with France and inking a new one with the US and the UK to purchase nuclear-powered submarines, instead of the French diesel-powered submarines.

The move was shocking to France, which described it as a "stab in the back". Paris recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington for consultations. Other European countries were also astounded, as they felt marginalised and that their voices were ignored on the world stage.

This move was a signal of a new global alliance known as AUKUS, with reference to Australia, the UK and the US. It has been formed mainly to address what these countries perceive as the growing Chinese threat in the South East Asia region. The AUKUS formation means that old alliances, in this case, NATO, were seen as unable to achieve the security and national interests of the AUKUS countries due to differences among its members.

Turkey's position 

Following such a major world development, some countries are likely to reconsider their priorities. Turkey, for instance, has long sought accession to the EU, but has seen its request delayed and blocked by some EU member countries – notably France and Greece.

The Turkish accession bid started in April 1987 and was officially recognised as a candidate for full membership on 12 December, 1999, at the Helsinki summit of the European Council. Since then, no major progress has been made.

Under the current developments and the changing dynamics on the world stage, with Russia and China rising as defiant and powerful countries politically, economically and militarily, the EU's influence has declined. Former US President Donald Trump deliberately distanced the EU and accused it of being "formed in order to take advantage of the United States." This was an early indication of the rift between Europe and the US.

On the other hand, relations between Turkey and Europe, led by France, were frosty on a number of files. The bloc sought to undermine Ankara by leading anti-Turkish attitudes on many files, notably, the Syrian crisis, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Libyan crisis. Another simmering anti-Turkish campaign by Europe, and especially France, was their objection to Turkish support for Azerbaijan in its long conflict with Armenia over the Azeri Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Moving beyond Europe

As Turkey is currently open to diversified alliances and partnerships with other countries worldwide, the EU accession would hinder its policies of openness with other countries. Europe has longstanding differences with countries such as Russia and China, and is viewed negatively by many African countries due to its colonial past. Hence, Turkey's accession to the EU would present an obstacle in forging partnerships with other countries, as it would be seen as belonging to the European camp. Turkey will do itself good to relinquish its quest for EU membership.

Today, Turkey has strong footprints across the African continent with full diplomatic ties with most of the continent countries; it now has embassies in 44 African countries out of Africa's 54 countries. Turkey is also a central and strategic country in its three important surrounding regions: the Balkan region and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus region and the Middle East.

Turkey's unique position and influence in these regions attracted the world powers to engage with Turkey in addressing the problems in these regions. This was clearly seen in the Syrian crisis and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as Turkey had talks with Russia on reaching settlements for both conflicts.

The EU accession could distance Turkey from establishing a strong relationship with other important countries in the world, notably Russia and China, in addition to establishing relations with other regional partners across the globe, as in the case of the Turkish-Azeri-Pakistani strategic partnership.

Turkish-Russian relations are historically rooted, and in recent years, they have grown deeper, as seen in their increased defence cooperation with the signing of the S-400 missile defence system and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant being some of the noteworthy examples.

Meanwhile, China has signed ten bilateral agreements with Turkey since 2016, including health and nuclear energy. China is now Turkey's second-largest import partner after Russia. The Chinese major economic Belt and Road Initiative is also of great advantage to Turkey. The Sino-Turkish cooperation involves deepening bilateral military and security ties, including in intelligence and cyber warfare.

Furthermore, and most importantly, there are no common policy interests between Turkey and Europe, as during the Cold War era. Their differences are clear on many issues, including the issue of Cyprus, the Libyan and Syrian crises and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Based on the developments on the global stage, it is also worth mentioning that the EU would be busy building its own defence capabilities to stand against its perceived threats, and such a step will put further restrictions on Turkey if it is to become an EU member.

Turkey's new openness with the world presents more advantages than having some benefits of joining the EU. If it was worth joining a few decades ago, it is not the case in our contemporary time. In light of all the aforementioned developments, it will not be an exaggeration to claim that Ankara will soon relinquish its quest to join the EU in favour of more diversified and strategic relations with the world.

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