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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Going East, Young Turk? An emerging narrative?

At times, it must feel to Turks that they can do no right in the eyes of many in the EU. My last post was a link to a news piece about the Turkish economy, and it got me thinking about how the latter is being portrayed in Western media.

The Turkish economy, as most readers will know, is now doing extraordinarily well and is coming out of the current recession in much better shape than many of its European neighbors. As Bloomberg notes:
During his first five years as prime minister, Erdogan presided over gross domestic product growth that averaged almost 7 percent per year. Turkey’s GDP increased at an annual rate of 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 as the country recovered from the global crisis, lagging behind only China among the Group of 20 nations, and the International Monetary Fund predicts an expansion of 6.25 percent in 2010.
The IMF now ranks Turkey as the world's 15th largest economy and Turkey is growing faster than its EU counterparts. All of this may seem like good news from the EU's perspective, and four EU foreign ministers recently did make the argument in a NYT op-ed that such a dynamic economy would be a good addition to the troubled EU economic area.

Instead, it is striking to note how many of the Western reports of the Turkish "miracle" that end up either mentioning of framing the entire story in terms that make the recent economic growth and trade a threat to the EU. The trouble is, we learn, that much of this growth is due to Turkey's increased trade with its eastern, Asiatic, and most troubling of all, predominantly Muslim neighbors - like Iran and Syria - rather
than with Europe.

So, for example, the Bloomberg piece quoted above ends up linking the political and economic dimensions of what we understand is Turkey's eastward turn:
Erdogan’s move away from lockstep with the West increases his credibility in the region [... and] Turkey’s access to countries like Syria and perhaps even to Hamas. [...] The change in Turkey’s political orientation is mirrored in its trade profile. Shipments to the 56 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, mostly in the Middle East, have more than doubled...
And so on in this and many similar pieces. This "turning east" narrative is a variation on the journey metaphor that I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and which is frequently used in the European Parliament, among other places. "Friends" of Turkey in the EU use this metaphor to describe Turkey as having embarked on a journey toward democracy and Europe, while its detractors tend to emphasize that Turkey is moving "backwards" or in the "wrong direction." On the current variation, then, Turkey is heading east - toward Islam and autocracy - instead of toward Europe (and democracy). The implicit (or explicit) linking of east-Islam-autocracy and of EU-Europe-democracy is, needless to say, highly tendentious and problematic.

Even the isolated assertion that Turkey is turning east is too simple. First of all, lest we forget, the current moderately Islamist government in Turkey has done more to reform the country and move it closer to the EU than any of its secular predecessors. Moreover, what Turkey appears to be doing is not turning east and away from Europe as much as moving toward trying to play a larger independent role in international politics in general and in its surrounding region in particular. Whether or not this will be successfully executed (the recent spat with Israel gives reason to be cautious) and constructive in its consequences, its "zero-problems" foreign policy is aimed at increasing collaboration and trade with all of its neighbors, not just Iran.

Finally, that Turkey would want to think broader and not put all its eggs in one (European) basket is, in my opinion, understandable given the cold shoulder it has recently been given by the EU. As the four ministers pointedly observed in the NYT op-ed, it is perhaps not that Turkey is turning away from Europe as much as that Europe is turning its back on Turkey. So perhaps the better question is where the EU is going.

1 comment:

  1. See for a critique of Turkish foreign policy in yesterday's Daily News, Hürriyet.


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