Bașak Alpan: No leader in Turkey would take the political burden of detaching Turkey from Europe

On Turkiye’s Europeanization and de-Europeanization as well as the Turkish relations with the Western Balkans and Southeastern Europe

Vladimir Mitev, Veronika Sušová-Salminen

In today’s Cross-border Talks episode, we talk to the Turkish expert Başak Alpan about the Europeanisation and de-Europeanisation of Turkey and Turkey’s relations with the EU and the Balkan countries. What role does the concept of Europe play in current Turkish (foreign) policy, and what are its historical roots? Are there de-Europeanisation tendencies in contemporary Turkey, or is the process of moving away from Europe in full swing? What relations does today’s Turkey cultivate in the Balkans?

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another Cross-Border Talk, where we continue with our interest towards Southeastern Europe and its politics. We are hosting today, Bașak Alpan, who is a professor of the Middle Eastern Technical University in Ankara, and she is very knowledgeable on the issues of Europeanization and relations of Turkey with the region, especially the Balkans. And we will be asking her exactly in these domains about what has been going on in general. In the first part of the talk will be about Turkey’s modernization and Europeanization, and in the second part will be dealing with international relations and a bit also with Turkish politics, where we see a certain move after the elections of Erdogan to the west. First question will be posed by my colleague, Veronika Sušová-Salminen.

Veronika Sušová-Salminen: Hello, everybody. And I will start with the question related to the phenomenon of Europeanization of Turkey. And in general, you know, this is a very large topic related to the European Union and its institutional processes. So maybe because our guest is really specialist for this topic, I would like to first ask – and I know it’s very difficult and complex question, not only because Turkey is one of the countries, who have been waiting for the longest time as a candidate to join the European Union – how to define the Europeanization process in relation to Turkey and its specific specific status? And how would you evaluate the current status of the Europeanization process in Turkey?

Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s great to see you. Well, I know that the term Europeanization is currently very catchy, and it even emerges as a buzzword. But regarding Turkey, Europeanization is usually understood in order to denote the period after the 1963 Ankara Agreement, when Turkey had become an associate, and applied for associate membership with the EU. Not full membership but associate membership. But the Europeanization story regarding Turkey dates back to the late 18th century and 19th century in the Ottoman Empire.

So because in the last eras of the Ottoman Empire, the term Europe has mainly been associated with the Westernization attempts of the Ottoman Empire and especially after many territories were lost starting from the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire started initiating these modernization attempts. It mainly overlapped with the term Europeanization in terms of restructuring the army, restructuring of some policies like taxation, etcetera. And this kind of continued with the Republic of Turkey as well, because when the Turkish Republic had been established in 1923, the main orientation of the republic was Europe. So after the proclamation of the Republic, the Europeanization attempts had mainly emerged at three different levels as a foreign policy discours. The direction of the republic was basically with the Western world as a civilizational discourse. Ataturk saw it together with the countries which emerged as the cradle of civilization. And as a policy-based discourse, especially after the Ankara Agreement of 1963, Europe increasingly started penetrating into the domestic policies. So in this respect, I guess we need to be thinking about Turkey’s Europeanization from a broader perspective, which could be traced back to the late Ottoman Empire as well.

Regarding this. Maybe it’s interesting because Turkey is very near to Russia. Russia was also trying to modernize. And both countries, I think, were trying to modernize also because they want to compete with the West in a way. So there was always this kind of dimension. But with Erdogan, current president of Turkey, we hear more often that he is now not only in the domestic policy but also within the foreign political dimension. He is doing something what some call as de-Europeanization. It means that he is or he was consciously turning Turkey towards Europe, towards countries like China, towards the Middle East, of course, where Turkey has always had an important position and towards Russia. So is there something like de-Europeanization and how to actually explain or interpret this process if there is such a process?

Yeah, good question. Thank you. Well, I mean, to start with, de-Europeanization has emerged as a catchy concept quite recently as well. And it mainly denotes this process where the quality of integration and the emergence of Europe as a context decreases and depreciates. And in the case of Turkey, de-Europeanization has usually been taken as a process where Turkey deviated from the EU ideal, where the EU anchor kind of depreciated in daily politics.

And all in all, when the relations with the EU are less about the EU conditionality, but more about the topical transactional relations in realms such as migration, energy, environment, whatever have you. So de-Europeanization is usually taken in this respect in the case of Turkey. And if we think about de-Europeanization as the reduction of Turkey-EU relations to only some topics like migration and emergence of Turkey, not as a candidate country, but as a third country, at least at the practical level, then we could talk about a de-Europeanization tendency.

But I never think that a thorough de-Europeanization and overall whole scale de-Europeanization is the case with Turkish politics, even with Erdogan’s strategic movements. Because de-Europeanization means that you are basically changing the whole orientation, the whole foreign policy orientation of the country, which is not really the case.

The current government of Erdogan is increasingly having personal and political ties with countries like Russia and China. But I wouldn’t say that at least from a public opinion perspective that this would lead to a wholesale de-Europeanization. I wouldn’t say that links with countries like Russia and China are substitutes for the relations with Europe. There are so many developments in the case of Turkey: Turkey is getting away from the EU, rule of law ideals, Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention. But if you think about the foreign policy relations with Balkan countries, with Russia, with China, with the third countries, we could still see that these relations are revolving around European concepts like democracy, civil society, economy and investments. So I think no political leader in Turkey would take the political burden of detaching Turkey from this ideal, even if there would be so many divergences from time to time. So my answer is yes. There are so many de-Europeanization tendencies in terms of the shifting of away from the European ideal and context, but I wouldn’t think that this would lead to a wholesale de-Europeanization.

Maybe we could have a look at what you mentioned – the tendencies to de-Europeanise Turkey in the terms of appliance of the models which European Union is representing or which is self-representing. Maybe for Turkey, as a country which is having specific history, specific, let’s say civilizational profile (and even I am not a believer in that) the European Union doesn’t mean Europe? I don’t like this because it’s not true. The European Union doesn’t mean Europe. Europe is much more diverse and Turkey is part of it, in my opinion. But put this aside. Do you think that the current idea of the European Union, Europeanisation, which the European Union is pushing, is pluralistic in its contents? Doesn’t it itself push countries like Turkey towards this de-Europeanization trend in itself you know. Isn’t it actually quite an imitative model which the EU is offering to the different societies and maybe not offering them enough space to develop themselves.

Yeah, you’re right. I mean, when we think about the conceptual toolkits of Europeanization and when it started in the 1990s, it had emerged as a concept to point out the convergence of the member states, to the European level in terms of their policies and politics. So this was kind of the first generation, so to speak, Europeanization studies. But when we come to the context of late 1990s and when we have the Central and Eastern European countries returning back to Europe and when we have the neighbourhood countries and those countries which will prospectively be EU candidates, the so-called second generation Europeanization studies started to take into account the transformative power of the EU, and they were rather curious on what was really happening at the domestic level, right?

So I would say that the second generation Europeanization studies started to take into account the notion of domesticity starting from the 1990s, just because of the concerns that you had raised. Is it only a one way road that the some countries will emulate whatever is coming from the EU street? The second generation approach to Europeanization kind of took into account what was really happening at the domestic level and how the EU’s transformative power is kind of emulated and represented at the domestic level.

But still, we have to admit that Europeanization perhaps is not only a top down model, because the more you take into account the domestic, the more bottom up approach you are kind of employing. But at the same time, we have to admit that this is an asymmetrical relationship, right? I mean, let’s take into account negotiations, EU negotiations, whatever you are negotiating is not the content of the policies, but it’s the timing. It is the funds that you require, etcetera. So I think we have to take into account that this is not a symmetrical relationship. So this asymmetricity is basically bringing into question the center periphery relationship that we were talking about.

Veronika, how could we challenge this asymmetricity? I mean, perhaps the best way would be to increase the communication between two sides of the spectrum. Okay, this is not a symmetrical relationship. The so-called recipient countries or the emulators of the Europeanization do not really have a say in the decision making processes, in the policy making processes, et cetera. But the more you kind of strengthen the informal links, the civil society linkages, the more you could kind of challenge this asymmetricity. And you can hear the voice of the periphery in this respect. I mean, as I mentioned, the Jean Monnet network that I’m currently coordinating is named LEAP, linking to Europe at the periphery. So in this respect, we have to pay attention, scholarly attention to what is really happening in the periphery so that we could understand what we have as a social phenomenon at hand.

Okay, Now we enter the second part of the talk where we will focus a little bit more, maybe on the periphery or Southeastern Europe. There are the Western Balkans which have been applying for EU membership for quite a long time, and Turkey has interests in basically all the countries in the Western Balkans. But what type of Western Balkans is preferred by Turkey? Western Balkans, which are in the EU or Western Balkans, which are outside of the EU?

Well, I would say, I mean, Turkey’s perspective vis-a-vis the Balkans is very much stigmatized with Turkey’s role as a predecessor. I think this Ottoman past is a cultural link. These historical linkages are kind of sometimes stigmatizing, sometimes influencing from a positive perspective the bilateral relations. This wasn’t like this when the Turkish Republic had been first established, because when the Turkish Republic had first been established, it tried to forge relationships with the Balkan countries from a quite realist perspective, where all the nations are equals. So this was like this when first Turkish Republic had first been proclaimed.

The first rupture, so to speak, in this respect had been during the premiership of Turgut Özal, because Turgut Özal introduced a very perspective towards the Balkans where personal and cultural and religious links are playing an important role. And this has of course, as you well know, has been very much initiated and very much commenced with, with Erdogan’s approach towards the Balkans, not only when he came to power, but before that, when he was the mayor of Istanbul. He had particular links with the Balkan countries. But when we look at these particular links with the Balkan countries, both during the premiership of Özal and during the Erdogan’s premiership and presidency, we see that these relations are not very structured, are not very institutionalized, but usually leaning on the so-called different variants and different dynamics of soft power. And when we speak about soft power, we could speak about cultural affinities, we could speak about historical linkages, we could speak about economic investments, and we could speak about the personalized relationships between the leaders in a way. So that’s what we have, regarding the relations between Turkey and the Balkans.

So how is the EU or how is Europe playing a role in this respect? I would say Turkey has a perspective vis-a-vis the Balkans, irrespective of the EU. Of course, European integration is a part of the Turkish perspective vis-a-vis the Balkans. And Turkey is not trying to undermine the EU perspective of the Balkan countries, on the contrary. But I would say European integration or the EU is not a game changer in terms of Turkey’s approach to the Balkans. So I would say, whether Balkan countries become EU members, EU candidates or whether Balkan countries, which clearly deviated from the EU ideal, this wouldn’t really change a lot. Turkey’s perspective is of the Balkans, but I would say that Turkey does not emerge as an alternative to the EU in the region. On the contrary, Balkan countries, which are closer to the EU ideal and which would be okay with those countries becoming EU members. This is not a problem for Turkey, I would say.


There are also the so-called Eastern Balkans, which means Bulgaria and Romania, which are part of the EU. And recently there has been some strengthening of the European tendency in their government, because we see now that the foreign ministers of the two countries are both strongly linked to European institutions. And I was wondering what does this mean for the relationship between these countries and Turkey? Usually they are kind of a bridge towards Turkey, but what is in fact the current dynamism of those relations between the Eastern Balkans, let’s say the EU Balkans and Turkey?

Yes, you are right, Vladimir. I mean, Romania and Bulgaria had been, I mean, would of course variations, but had been the supporters of Turkey’s EU integration. I mean, especially, for instance, what pops to my mind is Bulgaria’s 2018 presidency Borissov really tried to forge links between the EU and Turkey. So but within these relationships, we have to take into account other dynamics like NATO membership, like migration, like Black Sea activism, so to speak. So in this respect, to be honest, I don’t see Bulgaria and Romania as game changers in terms of Turkey’s EU accession. I mean, they would be with variations, with different dynamics. They have careful perspectives about Turkey’s relations with the EU. But there are so many different dynamics, so many regional dynamics in this picture. So I would say that Romania’s and Bulgaria’s perspectives in terms of Turkey’s EU accession wouldn’t really change a lot. Even if people change, ministers change and governments change. Those two countries have their own lively problems and concerns about the EU itself. So I wouldn’t think that Turkey would be a big game changer for those countries’ perspective and vice versa.

Okay. And now finally, let’s focus a little bit on Turkish politics. There was great attention towards the candidate of the opposition, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, and he was very much supported by Western powers, let’s say. But he lost the elections. And I guess it makes sense to ask you what is happening with his political union or tendency in Turkey right now and what happens with their ambitions?

Well, I would say in Turkish politics currently the opposition is silent. I think post election trauma is still continuing for the opposition parties, especially for my cholesterol, which kind of actually creates a great disappointment on the part of their electorates as well. But currently I wouldn’t say that the opposition is displaying a very well planned, a very elaborately framed opposition to the current government and current presidency. So I would say that the opposition kind of disappointed their electorate in that respect.

Okay, we think. I think we concluded this interview, in which our guest was Bașak Alpan, a Turkish specialist for EU Turkey relations. And we were talking about Europeanization of Turkey, about its foreign policies and also about the particular relations to the nearest EU neighborhood in the Balkans. I would like to remind everybody that Cross-border Talks are present on several platforms, so you can see us on YouTube, you can listen to us on SoundCloud. You can, of course, also follow us on several social media. For example, LinkedIn or Telegram – to mention a few of them. And I am glad that we could talk with our guests and I am looking forward for our next interview. Have a nice day everybody. Thank you, Bașak, for your time and for your insights in this topic.

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