By Emre Gürkan Abay
Can SCO or BSEC become viable alternatives to Turkey’s EU membership?

Turkey’s rising tension with the West, following their negative backlash on Turkey’s attempts to contain the reach of the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) after the coup, and in the inconclusive discussions to freeze Turkey’s EU membership talks in the European Parliament, have left relations at an all-time low.

The Turkish Government launched a swift purge after the failed coup attempt last summer against the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), who had infiltrated governmental and institutional bodies.

Thousands of civil servants as well as military personnel, police officers, academics and teachers were relieved of their duties or arrested either on evidence or on suspicion that they were associated with the failed coup attempt against the government.

The Business people who had financially supported the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) were also put under investigation and their properties confiscated.

The EU’s fire of criticism on Turkey’s clampdown began as expected without delay. However, very few tried to fully understand what took place in Turkey.

The attempt to topple the Turkish government in an unprecedented way was dealt with assiduously, and those accused of being involved were either removed or arrested immediately before they could regroup or tamper with evidence.

The speedy operations observed the universal standards of justice and human rights, and all political parties in the country, including the opposition, gave their support to the government, however, the EU’s elite remained critical as to the extent of the post-coup cleanup.

“We have made clear time and time again that we take care of European values more than many EU countries, but we could not see concrete support from Western friends,” Erdogan said during the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Istanbul last month.

As the possibility of sanctions against Turkey was discussed in EU circles, Turkey also began to discuss the alternatives to EU membership.  

In fact, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced his willingness for Turkey to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) three years ago. Erdogan raised the issue once again, this time as a counter attack against the EU, resulting in diverse response from the East and West.

Turkey was rewarded by the SCO with the presidency of its Energy Club on Nov. 23. The SCO had selected a non-member country to the position for the first time in its two-decade history. The decision does not necessarily guarantee Turkey’s membership. However, it was a clear sign of support and understanding.

The EU’s response to Erdogan’s rhetoric was in a sharp contrast with that of the East. The EU parliament voted to freeze membership talks with Turkey just a couple of days later on Nov. 24. Although the presidency of the organization is not a binding result for membership, it is a strong signal for the political leaders of the EU member countries.

The possibility of Turkey joining the SCO has been widely discussed in academic and political circles both in Turkey and internationally. Some experts argue that the SCO membership requires Turkey’s exit from NATO, while others claim this is unnecessary. Regardless, Turkey is unlikely to make such a radical shift unless it is forced to do so. Unfortunately, Turkey is being gradually pushed to that point of decision with Europe’s exclusive policy.

The EU had accepted more than a dozen countries long before they were eligible for membership, such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania while Turkey has been kept at the door although its economic and political standards exceeded many others candidate countries.

EU money poured into new member countries -- Greece, Portugal and Spain etc. in the 1980’s and 1990’s to upgrade their standards. After decades of mismanagement, however, that strategy turned out to be catastrophic for many. Greece for example, had and continues to pay a painful price for EU loans but one third of Greece’s foreign debt - €180 billion has been erased. Turkey, on the other hand, paid every cent of its debt including that inherited from the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago. The debt on International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans too was eradicated over a decade ago.

The EU appears to be increasingly losing its appeal as exemplified by the Brexit vote in the U.K. but is not the only unhappy country in the union.

The recent migration crisis, which was an outcome of the Syrian civil war, has played a “test paper” role for many EU countries. Hungary, for example, was the first country to openly resist Brussels’s pressure to fulfill refugee quotas led by Germany.

Hungary is unlikely to make further progress because it is a net beneficiary country of the EU. However, Italy, a much larger country and one of the three major countries which had initially formed the EU six decades ago, showed signs that they are likely to follow suit.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi declared his intention to resign on the result of the constitutional referendum on Dec. 4, although he postponed the decision until the end of budget talks.

Serious consequences are expected both for Italy and the EU. Many banks are on the verge of bankruptcy and political turmoil could speed up their collapse, and snowball into a financial avalanche. Furthermore, the Five Stars Movement (M5S), the second largest political party of the country and Italy’s biggest opposition group, declared that it would put Italy’s EU membership to a vote if it comes to power.

Considering that the party currently has an estimated 20 percent of the votes, it could take a long time before the M5S rules the country. However, their bitter criticism may detonate other unhappy groups in and/or out of Italy.

Moreover, Bulgaria was deeply disappointed by the EU for the blocking of the South Stream natural gas project to transport gas from Russia to Southeastern Europe. Bulgaria’s first reaction was to elect a pro-Russian president; a retired air force general, Rumen Radev.

The rising far right movement in Austria and especially in France should be added to the list of threats to the EU. In a vote in Austria’s presidential elections on Dec. 4, Austrians delayed the danger with a margin of less than 10 percent ousting the far right. But Norbert Hofer, who was running for the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) declared his will for candidacy for the next elections in 2022.

In France, the National Front (NF) was the first party at the 2014 European elections with 25 percent of the votes. And in the last departmental elections in France. Marine Le Pen, the leader of NF is the third frontrunner in the presidential election, which is due to be held next April. She is not expected to overcome the necessary 50 percent vote for election, but it should be noted that a “yes” in the Brexit vote was also not anticipated. Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential elections was even more unexpected.

The list of discontented countries does not end with France. The Netherlands’s Party For Freedom, Denmark’s Danish people’s Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, Germany’s Alternative For Germany along with Sweden, Finland and even Poland are the countries where anti EU feelings are rife and cover over half of EU members.

To summarize, the EU may not yet be at a dissolution stage, but the good old days are fading. And Turkey, with the rise of the far right in Europe, has every reason to look for alternatives.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) may not be a perfect replacement for the EU because of its different principles.

First of all, the SCO was founded as a security organization while the EU was based on purely economic dynamics.

Secondly, the EU has evolved into a political structure in which the member countries compromised (to some extent) their sovereignties in favor of democracy and human rights. On the other hand, the SCO has never attempted to meddle in the political systems of member countries. This difference is one of the main reasons which forces Turkey to be at its current crossroads.

The SCO (India and Pakistan included) can only be compared with the EU (the U.K. excluded) in terms of total Gross National Product (GNP). The SCO’s GNP is $12.8 billion compared to the EU at $13.5 billion. However, the SCO may not yet be the perfect choice for Turkey because of its trade relations.

The EU is still Turkey’s largest trade partner by volume amounting to $142.5 billion, against that of the SCO at $62 billion. But more importantly, the trade deficit for the SCO is $45 billion (-45 percent) while the deficit with the EU is only $15 billion (-15 percent). The only benefit to Turkey may be in being awarded a prestigious place in the SCO through average income of roughly $10,000 per capita, however, Turkey’s trade with the SCO is likely to suffer outweighing the benefits.

The last but not least choice for Turkey is the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) zone which is an organization between the EU and the SCO, similar to its geographical position. The organization consists of 12 members, Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and Serbia.

BSEC’s economic power, at roughly $4.5 billion, is not yet a match to that of the EU or SCO. However, over the past 25 years, the BSEC has developed an effective structure quite similar to that of the EU. Turkey which has been a pioneer for the establishment and development of the BSEC has gathered all of its experience from dialogue with the EU. Countries like Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, which are also EU member states, could also add their vast experience to the BSEC.

Economic integration among the BSEC countries has been successful. Hundreds of Turkish entrepreneurs have established businesses in each of the member countries mainly in Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Bulgaria while many Greek investments were undertaken in Turkey during the privatization process in the past decade. Giant projects between Turkey and Russia are likely to boost trade and encourage others.

One of the BSEC’s most encouraging mutual infrastructure projects is the Black Sea Ring Highway (BSRH). It was initiated in 2011 and is expected to be finished by 2020. The most difficult and expensive segment -- along the Turkish East Black Sea coast -- was put into service nearly a decade ago. Russia has finished its section before the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. The only remaining segment to be constructed is the connection through Georgia. Other parts over the north and west of the Black Sea can be finished easily because of the terrain there.

The European Bank of Research and Development (EBRD) supports the project and in addition, some funding for the project is expected to be provided by the EU, as well as some EU banks and other international sources. But Russia’s ongoing tension with Georgia and Ukraine are the most difficult obstacles to the project as well as the ambitions for the BSEC overall against which the EBRD’s support plays a vital role.

In the meantime, the Black Sea continues to play a role as a natural highway to provide numerous connections between the ports of littoral countries. When Georgia and Ukraine reap the benefits, they could put aside their political tensions with Russia and give way to the business perks.

Turkey has become a production base for many industries over the past decades. For example, many automotive giants have installed their factories in Turkey because of the optimal production costs, high quality labor force and especially for the proximity to markets in the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and Africa. Dozens of worldwide companies have set up their call centers in Turkey for the same reasons. Turkey is likely to be followed by other countries in the Black Sea basin when the business environment is upgraded.

If and when Turkey and Russia further join forces, they can boost the BSEC zone to a level which could attract at least more support if not membership from others.

To sum up, Turkey may welcome membership offers from abroad. But it does not need to nor will it beg for any. It has already a promising club membership at hand. 

- Opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy. 

14 Dec,2016
ANALYST