The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.
After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long.
However, even as it makes sense to decision-makers in Ankara to reconsider their relationship with the EU, it is not a strategically sound choice for Turkey to consider membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative. Already a ”dialogue partner” with the SCO, late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had made an overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin about joining the SCO, stating “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union. The Shanghai Five [former name of the SCO] is better — much more powerful.” Erdogan also noted that Turkey has more “common values” with the SCO member states.
The issue, however, is that the SCO remains a nascent organization that is still in the process of defining itself. Absorbing new members, or figuring out the protocols for new members to be formally acceded, is merely one of the many problems the SCO faces. The Organization’s security structures, including the unfortunate-acronym RATS Center [Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure], have yet to fully flesh out their purpose in advancing regional security in a very militarily tense region. Meanwhile, China continues to dominate the SCO's economic agenda, including negotiations to establish an SCO Free Trade Area (FTA), an SCO Development Bank, and Beijing offering $10 billion in loans for member states. All of this alarms Russian strategists who see China encroaching on Moscow's Central Asian interests. Nonetheless, all of this results in a minimal concrete presence, something we found first-hand as we travelled around Central Asia over the past year, finding little tangible evidence of the Organization’s footprint on the ground.
Further complicating matters, Turkey is not the only country that has expressed an interest in becoming a full member. In fact, Pakistani and Indian officials both said their countries were interested in becoming full-fledge members at the Prime Minister’s Summit in Bishkek last December. Iran too has expressed an interest in joining the organization, although Moscow recently said this would not be possible so long as Tehran remains under UN sanctions. All three countries currently languish as “observers,“ a status that Pakistan and India have held since 2005 and one that is considered superior to the ‘dialogue partnership’ that Turkey was only accorded last June. Still, both Pakistan and India – strategically important allies for China and Russia respectively – would undoubtedly feel put out were Turkey allowed to jump the queue.