“Will Turkey join the European Union?  That’s up to the Europeans.  All we see is that when we go to Europe they treat us like we are nothing – whereas in the Middle East they look up to us.”  Such were the words of a Turkish diplomat I spoke to in Washington recently.


As Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Washington today he is representing a country that is increasingly at ease with its southern and eastern neighbors and increasingly frustrated with the EU.   And with Europe’s new leadership aloof it may fall to President Obama to keep Turkey strongly cemented within the Western alliance.

A Cold Shoulder from Brussels

Turks are feeling increasingly distant from Europe, seeing slights at every turn.  The passage of a Swiss referendum banning the building of minarets last week proved an eye-opening case in point.  Most European leaders roundly criticized the move. Switzerland’s own foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said she thought the vote was a mistake, arguing that “Each limitation on the coexistence of different cultures and religions also endangers our security.”  The Times of London was more direct, arguing that “Swiss voters have adopted intolerance.”

Yet Erdogan proclaimed the ban a “sign of an increasing racist and fascist stance in Europe.”

Erdogan was likely still smarting from the elevation of Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy to the new position of President of the European Council.  Unlike the more Turkey-friendly Tony Blair, Van Rompuy is regarded with distinct disdain in Ankara. The only thing most people in Turkey know him for in fact is a statement attributed to him at a 2004 meeting of the Council of Europe on the subject of Turkey’s possible entry into the EU: “Turkey is not a part of Europe and never will be a part of Europe…. An expansion of the EU to include Turkey cannot be considered as just another expansion as in the past. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigor with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey,”

The Friday after Van Rompuy’s elevation one newspaper in Turkey ran a simple but effective front-page headline: “The EU first president is anti-Turkish.”

As Reuters reported on Friday,

“Van Rompuy is a compromise candidate, but he is obviously backed by France and Germany, so this is not good news for Turkey,” said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have said they would sooner offer Turkey a “privileged partnership” than full EU membership.

It should not come as a surprise therefore that Turkish popular interest in joining the EU is plummeting. Only about one-third of the population of Turkey still wants to join the EU – which represents a tremendous drop from the 80 percent who favored joining in 2002.  While the ruling AK Party still nominally pushes for membership, recent comments by government officials reveal a growing fatalism that in the end the matter is completely out of Turkish hands. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently said to the BBC,

“There are two ways in front of the EU. Either the EU will be a global power, a dynamic economy and a multicultural global environment, or a continental power with a less dynamic economy, with a more inward-looking culture. These are the two options.

“Turkey is a litmus test for this. With Turkey the EU will be a global power, much more strategically important, with a much more dynamic economy, with a strong hinterland with rich economic resources.”

Regarding Van Rompuy, Suat Kiniklioglu, the ruling AK Party’s deputy chairman of foreign relations, said simply, “I hope he revises his views in the short term. But I can’t be optimistic.”

A “Neo-Ottoman” Turkey

While publicly claiming that EU accession is still the goal, the ruling AK Party is increasingly looking south and east as it seeks to shore up its influence in the Middle East and Caucasus.  The term “neo-Ottoman” is now being used to describe Turkey’s new “zero-problem” policy with its neighbors.  A new Turkey-Syria High Level Strategic Cooperation Council represents a profound rapprochement with one of Ankara’s long-standing regional rivals, as does the recent thaw in relations with Armenia.  Last week’s free-trade deal with Jordan and ongoing efforts to reform Turkey’s constitution to grant its Kurdish minorities more freedoms will also help broaden Turkish power in the region.

There is nothing wrong with Turkey’s desire to live happily with its neighbors.  However, Turkey’s souring of relations with Israel and Erdogan’s support for Sudan’s indicted President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have raised eyebrows in Brussels and Washington, as has Turkey’s new spate of trade deals with Iran.  As the U.S. and EU try to build international consensus aimed at enacting expanded sanctions against Iran, trade ties between Iran and Turkey are set to balloon from $7 billion to $20 billion by 2011. Also unnerving were Erdogan’s comments during an October interview with the Guardian. Speaking of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he said “There is no doubt he is our friend. . . . As a friend so far we have very good relations and have had no difficulty at all.”

This also comes at a time when, in the words of Gareth Jenkins (author of the recently published paper, “Between Fact and Fantasy: Turkey’s Ergenekon Investigation”), we are witnessing “the most worrying period for Turkish democracy in 20 years.”  Jenkins has become one of the few Western experts on the Ergenekon investigation, which has spiraled into “the largest and most controversial judicial investigation in recent Turkish history.” As Jenkins observes,

“According to the public prosecutors handling the case, Ergenekon is a vast organization which has penetrated virtually every aspect of Turkish life and is committed to destabilizing and eventually overthrowing the government of the Islamic conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). They maintain that, in addition to carrying out terrorist attacks in its own right, Ergenekon is involved in extortion and narcotics trafficking and effectively controls not only the Turkish underworld but virtually every militant group that has committed an act of violence in Turkey over the last 20 years – from the Kurdish separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) through theTur Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party – Front (DHKP-C) to numerous violent Islamist groups and organizations.”

The Ergenekon investigation, according to Jenkins, is a complex mixture of AKP paranoia and a calculating power grab by the government.  Its victims include a smorgasbord of people whose only shared quality is that they do not support the AKP.  In the words of Dan Bilefsky in a recent New York Times column, “[the suspects] include an erotic novelist, four-star generals, newspaper editors and underworld figures. Of those, 194 have been charged and 43 are under investigation.”

Yet most critically for Turkish politics, Ergenekon has through numerous wiretaps and arrests successfully defanged the Turkish military, which, for better or worse, has throughout the republic’s history represented the only real check on a political system essentially devoid of checks and balances. The Big Brother that was Turkey’s military is clearly in a corner – its officers are being watched and the failure of the short-lived 2007 “e-coup” demonstrated how difficult it has become for it to intervene in Turkish political affairs.   Still, this is a mixed blessing. The military may now be out of the picture, but as it hasn’t been replaced by any other institution to guarantee the rule of law, Turkey is essentially in danger of swapping one authoritarian system for another.  This also coincides with the government’s ongoing threats to destroy Turkey’s largest media company, Dogan Yayin, which has been engaged in tough reporting on Erdogan’s government.  Needless to say there are growing fears that this manhandling of any political opposition could soon turn into a slippery slope.

Washington Meeting

Semih Idiz, a columnist for Istanbul’s Milliyet newspaper, summed up U.S. options relating to Turkey: “The American side does not seem to have the intention of rocking the boat in relations with Turkey because Turkey is too important.”

Obama is not in the position to prod the Turks over Ergenekon – though it is a serious concern.  He will need all the cooperation from Turkey he can get as the U.S. plans to draw down its forces in an increasingly tense Northern Iraq.  Nor is he likely to succeed in securing any more troops for Afghanistan from Turkey, as Erdogan made abundantly clear before departing for Washington. Iran, not surprisingly, will be the central talking point of today’s discussions. Obama will seek to capitalize on Turkey’s newfound influence there and critical position as a rotating member of the UN Security Council.

But as important will be the president’s efforts to assure Erdogan of Turkey’s essential place within the Western alliance. Erdogan is by no means a perfect democrat, and often seems as comfortable in the company of religious dictators as Western heads of state.  Yet the prospect of joining the EU has done much to spur the reforms that have made Turkey a much more liberal and westernized place.  If the anchor of prospective Turkish EU membership is ever completely abandoned it may have to be the U.S.-Turkey relationship that keeps Turkey from forever drifting away.

Nicholas Siegel is an assistant director of the Transatlantic Relations Program and research assistant to the president at the Atlantic Council.