In the discussion Whither Turkey? much is made of Turkey’s move east as opposed to its continued integration into the West through EU membership. The notion that Turkey is turning East at the expense of the West disregards a host of factors.
Turkey’s expanding influence in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world enhances rather than weakens its interest in EU membership. Turkey has always and still positions itself as a bridge between East and West. Turkey also sees itself as a model for the Islamic world. Those positions would be strengthened by EU membership giving Turkey a much firmer foot in both worlds and highlighting its role as a bridge and a successful model.
Beyond the fact that the EU remains Turkey’s largest trading partner and the fact that Turkey has a large ethnic community in Europe, Turkish business has quietly made major acquisitions in Europe and are in sectors like electronics leading original equipment manufacturers (OEM) for the European market.
Moreover, this weekend’s referendum may increase self-confidence among Turkey’s governing Islamist elite, but secularists and Islamists alike have always seen EU membership as the ultimate guarantor of their worldviews: secularists believe it will ensure continued separation of state and mosque, Islamists see the EU as the road towards greater freedom of religion.
Constitutional change in Turkey does not replace the EU’s guarantor role; it may well however toughen the negotiating stance of a more self-confident Turkish government on the back of a significant victory in rolling back the influence of the military. Ultimately, the expanded focus of Turkish foreign policy reflects a greater reality in Turkey’s neck of the woods: states no longer neatly fit into pro- and anti-Western boxes but pursue policies, some of which are in line with US and European policies and some that are not.
It’s a reality the United States and the European Union needed to adjust to; recognizing that Turkey remains staunchly embedded in the West with its NATO and Council of Europe membership and EU membership applications would be an important step towards that adjustment.