24.02.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey’s search for a “historic” alternative to the EU

Turkey’s search for a “historic” alternative to the EU

The question of Turkey’s possible integration with Europe has been under discussion for decades and is one of the most problematic issues in post-war European history. Turkey was one of the founders of the Council of Europe in 1949, has been an “associate member” of the EEC since 1964, and officially applied for EU membership on April 14, 1987, but was only granted candidate status 12 years later, at the Helsinki Summit in 1999.

Following the Brussels summit of December 17, 2004, accession negotiations with Turkey began on October 3, 2005. Turkey appears to have harmonized its laws with those of the EU. However, much time has passed, and still no decision has been made. In Turkey itself, the idea of European integration and EU accession is still on the agenda, and remains an important political, social and economic issue.

However, given the bias shown by the EU in its attitude towards Turkey, which is the world’s thirteenth largest economy and has long been a member of NATO, it is quite natural that some sections of Turkey’s political elite, and many of its citizens have lost interest in the idea of European integration. During the many years in which Turkey has been an “eternal candidate,” opinion polls have shown a shift in the proportions of Turkish citizens who are in favor of or against EU membership.

In the past, it appeared that Turkey was a confirmed long-term ally of the West, a key NATO member since February 1952 and its mainstay on the bloc’s southeastern flank, while the EU remained under the security umbrella of the US and NATO. There was therefore no reason why Turkey should not join the EU. What is more, since the second half of the twentieth century, millions of Turks have emigrated to Western Europe, especially Germany, and this diaspora retains cultural and economic ties with Turkey. But in the early 21st century Turkey began to implement major transport and energy projects connecting Europe to the post-Soviet countries (in particular, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Central Asian republics) via Turkey, thus bypassing Russia, and Brussels, pragmatic as ever, became much more interested in Ankara’s “geo-economic agenda.” Nevertheless, the EU is in no hurry to accept Turkey as a member, and continually presents additional conditions, while offering new justifications for its refusal.

For example, in May 2023, Manfred Weber, Leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, announced that Brussels had no intention of accepting Turkey as a member of the EU, and called on it to end the talks with Ankara. Naturally, the EU’s attitude has been greeted with anger by the Turkish government and general public. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan interpreted the EU’s decision as a sign of its bias against Turkey. Erdoğan insists that Turkey has fulfilled all its promises to the EU, but Brussels “has not kept any of its own promises.”

In July 2023, at the NATO summit in Vilnius, held to discuss the issue of ratifying Sweden’s membership, President Erdoğan linked the “Swedish issue” to Stockholm’s assistance in accelerating Turkey’s admission to the EU. However, Brussels (perhaps under pressure from France and Germany, which are the EU’s driving forces) refused to link the two issues, insisting that Ankara’s decision on Sweden would have no impact on Turkey’s EU membership bid.

As a result, on January 23-25, the Turkish parliament voted to approve Sweden’s accession to NATO and President Erdoğan signed the ratification decree. Brussels, on the other hand, did not take a similarly positive decision regarding Turkey’s EU membership, instead imposing new conditions and postponing the decision indefinitely. The Turks see the EU’s negative stance as the result of decades of delays and misunderstandings on the part of Europe. In particular, the religious and cultural differences between Turkey and the EU.

That explains why Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan recently stated in an interview with the Haber news agency that Ankara does not intend to wait forever for EU membership, but will seek alternative “historical paths” towards integration, especially in relation to economic cooperation. Among other things, he said, “We are not in a position to wait for EU membership. We have to look for other alternatives, other historical paths, especially in the field of economic cooperation. This is our position.” He added, however, that Turkey still wants to join the EU, but it has neither ways nor means to influence Brussels’ position in any way.

Meanwhile, the situation in the world is changing rapidly. Today the Middle East is in the midst of a serious crisis, and the future of the world order depends to a considerable extent on its resolution. And Turkey is not just an outside observer, but is actively involved in attempting to resolve the crisis and has offered various promising initiatives.

In fact, for the global West (i.e. the US and the UK) the main starting point for the resolution of the military conflict between Israel and Palestine is the proposal of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to recognize the independence of Palestine within its 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In fact, it is possible that Turkey may be granted an international mandate over the future Palestinian state, with the status of a guarantor of peace and security and with the right to bring Turkish troops into the region in order to prevent humanitarian and political violations.

Turkey is gradually becoming a key country, not only in the Middle East, but in other important regions including the South Caucasus, the Caspian Basin, and Central Asia, whose energy and mineral resources (oil, gas, uranium etc.) Europe depends on in order to cover its own shortages. Significantly, Hakan Fidan, noting Turkey’s stance on the EU’s negative response, has pointed out: “Our negotiation partners do not understand what they are rejecting. At the very least, their attitude comes down to historical factors… But that is a completely different subject.”

What “historical alternative” to the EU could Turkey be looking for? And in what direction? Today, the EU stands for the economic and socio-political integration of the countries of continental Europe, but it does not have its own military bloc. Any discussions about the formation of a European army are still at the drawing board stage. In terms of its security, the EU is therefore dependent on NATO. Ankara is therefore looking for economic cooperation in other directions, as an alternative to integration with Europe.

Turkey has never been part of, let alone led, an alliance of that kind. In Turkish history, the only comparable entity was the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1453–1923. But that was not an economic union, but a huge group of separate territories in West Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Europe, that were conquered and held together by force. Although the doctrine of neo-Ottomanism now plays an important role in Turkey’s foreign policy, at this stage it would be unrealistic for Ankara, as an alternative to integration with the EU, to seek to establish a new Turkish Empire covering the territories occupied by its Ottoman predecessor.

One alternative to the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), led by Russia, covers much of the post-Soviet space, and is close to Turkey’s borders. Turkey maintains dynamic and pragmatic economic and political ties with virtually all EAEU members, except for Armenia (at least at present). However, it is unclear whether Turkey plans to join the EAEU. It is likely that Ankara sees the EAEU as a preferable alternative to larger international and economic associations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or BRICS.

Moreover, it is significant that a key element of Ankara’s current foreign policy strategy is the concept of the “Turkish Axis,” which includes such related doctrines as neo-Ottomanism, pan-Turanism and Turkish Eurasianism. Following the military successes of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020-2023, Ankara has shifted its focus to more ambitious initiatives in the Turkic and Islamic worlds.

These initiatives include:

– the adoption by Turkey and Azerbaijan of the Shusha Declaration on July 15, 2021, which creates a strategic alliance between the two parties;

– the reorganization on November 12, 2021 of the Turkic Council into the International Organization of Turkic States, which promotes cooperation between Turkic nation and peoples in many fields.

Turkey is also seeking to establish infrastructure links with the historical Western (Russian) and Eastern (Chinese) Turkestan regions, via its ally Azerbaijan and the Caspian Basin. This will enable it to become the main transit route between the natural resources-rich post-Soviet Turkic states and external (primarily European) markets. At present, Turkey already controls gas exports from Azerbaijan to Europe through the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline TANAP. This is the central part of the Southern Gas Corridor, which connects Azerbaijan’s large Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea to Europe via the South Caucasus pipeline and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline.

Turkey also cooperates quite effectively with Russia on energy projects, which include gas exports through Turkey’s Blue Stream and Turkish Stream pipelines, oil exports using its tanker fleet and through Azerbaijan’s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and also the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. In October 2022, Turkey also received a proposal from the Russian president to implement a joint gas hub megaproject, including the construction of gas concentration infrastructure in Eastern Thrace and the formation of an electronic commodity exchange for international gas trading.

On September 4, 2023, during a summit between the Russian and Turkish leaders in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin said that Gazprom had provided the Turkish state-owned oil and gas company Botaş with a draft roadmap for the creation of a gas hub, and included on the agenda for talks between the two companies a proposal to establish a joint working group. At the end of December 2023, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak said that the implementation of the project could begin in 2024.

However, Turkey wants to diversify its gas supplies and does not intend the gas hub project to be solely linked to Russian gas. For example, Ahmet Demirok, Turkey’s ambassador to Turkmenistan, has said:. “Turkey seeks to become a gas hub, given the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia, as well as due to Europe’s mounting demand… Russia sells most of its gas and oil to Turkey, and Russia supports Turkey’s transformation into a gas hub. Mr. Putin has repeatedly talked about this. Our respective work with Russia continues, but of course, we do not want to limit ourselves to Russian gas only, we want to diversify supplies.”

Ahmet Demirok believes that Turkey’s efforts to create a gas hub will help maintain stability in the surrounding region and in Europe as a whole. Turkey currently transports gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe via the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP). Accordingly, Turkey is optimistic that Turkmen gas will help it diversify its energy ties and exports to Europe, by reducing its dependence on Russia. In December 2022, Turkey and Turkmenistan signed amemorandum on the development of cooperation in the energy sector.

According to the Turkish newspaper Sabah, gas cooperation with Ashgabat is one element in Turkey’s strategic plans to become a regional gas trading center. It is assumed that Turkmen gas will be delivered to Turkey via Azerbaijan, and that some of it will then be further exported to Europe. With this project in mind, the Turkish state oil and gas company Botaş and the Turkmen state corporation Türkmengaz recently held talks in Ankara to discuss plans to deliver gas from Turkmenistan via Azerbaijan to Turkey for further export to Europe.

The first stage of the plan being discussed involves the delivery of Turkmen gas to Turkey, and then its immediate export to European markets on a regular basis. For Turkey, the estimated cost of gas from Turkmenistan will be lower, which will strengthen its negotiating position in talks with other exporters (including Russia).

Sabah notes that as part of its plans to become a major gas export hub, Turkey plans to receive gas from Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in addition to Russia, and also receive LNG from other countries, and export this fuel to Europe.

Earlier, the Turkish leadership has repeatedly stated that it plans to create in Turkey both a gas export hub and an associated gas and energy trading center, i.e. an exchange platform where the current price for resources will be formed. To do this, Ankara needs to ensure the delivery of fuel to its territory from various sources.

Thus, Turkey is maintaining its high level of interest in the European market, and by implementing further gas contracts with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Russia, is becoming a key supplier (in fact, given the sanctions against Russia and Iran, an essential supplier) for the EU countries.

On January 29, following a European investor forum dedicated to the Global Gateway project in Brussels, attended by high-ranking representatives from the European Commission, the EU (and G-7) countries, the Central Asian and Caucasus countries, and Turkey, and also from major financial institutions and private companies, European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said that European and international financial institutions would allocate 10 billion euros of investment funding to the creation of a transport corridor between Europe and Central Asia, bypassing Russia.

International observers regard the Global Gateway project as a kind of European alternative to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. The European Commission press release explicitly notes that events in Ukraine have “underlined the urgency to find alternative reliable efficient trade routes between Europe and Asia that do not transit Russia.”

With these developments in mind, Turkey envisions an alternative “historical path” to the EU, in the form of pan-Turanian integration – the formation of a common market between a group of countries (Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Pakistan, Georgia and – possibly – Armenia). Armenia’s interest in this project would be linked to its control of the Zangezur corridor – the shortest way for Turkey to access its partners in the “Turkic world” (i.e. Azerbaijan and Turkestan).

With access to 10.4% of the world’s gas reserves (Turkmenistan – 7%, Azerbaijan – 1.4%, Kazakhstan – 1.3%, Uzbekistan – 0.6%), Turkey is becoming an indispensable and influential partner of the EU. And it appears that the pan-Turanian “historical alternative” will provide Ankara with the means and ways it needs to influence the EU. It is no coincidence that after the above announcement by Brussels of financial support for the trans-Caspian transport corridor, Azerbaijan began to make ironic comments on Armenia’s hopes for France’s support (comparing Paris’s purely verbal support for Yerevan with the billions of euros in funding it will allocate to Baku for the pan-Turan project).

Turkey’s interests and plans are entirely compatible with the pragmatic policy and far-reaching ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, Turkey will find it difficult to realize its plans for a pan-Turanian Economic Market and Army without respecting the interests of Russia, Iran and China. Moscow, for example, is unlikely to cede control of the Zangezur corridor and Armenian sovereignty to anyone, not even Turkey.


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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