ISTANBUL – Just a few years ago, Europe headed Turkey’s agenda. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s newly elected government had embarked on a series of ambitious reforms to meet the European Union’s political criteria for membership. At the end of 2004, the EU decided to initiate accession talks.
But pro-European euphoria proved short-lived: for all practical purposes, the accession negotiations are now at an impasse. Euro-skepticism is now at an all-time high in Turkey, fueled by some European political leaders’ rhetoric opposing Turkey’s accession, and by the EU’s own failure to dispel doubts about the feasibility of Turkey’s eventual membership. Domestic support for EU accession was 70% at the start of the negotiations, but is now closer to 40%.
Not surprisingly, Turkey’s government has also lost its appetite for EU-related reforms. For more than two years, the European Commission has found little positive to say in its annual progress reports on political reform.
Yet, just as Europe is looking more distant, the Middle East is looming larger, as Turkey shifts its attention from Brussels to Beirut and beyond. The frustrations of dealing with an undecided Europe have led Turkish policymakers to focus their efforts on an area where the expected return on their investment is more immediate and more concrete. In fact, whereas Erdoğan recently visited many Middle East countries – Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq – until this month, he had not been to Brussels since 2005.