By now, it must have dawned on even the most dim-witted European politician that there is a discrepancy between Turkey's rhetoric and performance -- at least, as far as Europe is concerned. Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış has from time to time entertained us with his various distortions of reality, including his recent claim that "the sun of Europe rises from Istanbul every morning nowadays." But the events that have unfolded in Turkey in recent weeks present a different picture.
In 2006 Turkey and the US agreed that Turkey's EU accession is a strategic priority for both countries, and three years ago the UK renewed its strategic partnership agreement with Turkey. On this occasion, David Cameron underlined that the UK would remain Turkey's "strongest possible advocate" for EU membership. A recent photo posted on the Twitter account of the Turkish Ambassador to Washington, Namık Tan, showing US Secretary of State John Kerry, with his hand on British Ambassador Peter Westmacott's shoulder, talking with Namık Tan, indicates that the three are still hugger mugger.
Whatever Turkey might profess, the drift of Turkey's foreign policy, not to speak of its domestic policy, is towards the Muslim world and the Middle East. In an interview with the Cairo Review in March last year, Foreign Minister Davutoğlu explained that Turkey's policy of strategic depth, which has been dubbed "neo-Ottoman," rests on an engagement with countries with which Turkey shares a common past and geography as well as shared interests and common ideals. He envisaged Turkey utilizing its geopolitical position in the midst of Afro-Eurasia to set the parameters of a new global order.
In a speech made last April at a Justice and Development Party [AKP] congress in Konya, Davutoğlu was more specific and spoke of the party's historic mission to create a new world order [nizam-i âlem, the Ottoman concept of a world order under Islam] with the emergence of Turkey as a global power.
This hangs together with Davutoğlu's Sarajevo speech in October 2009, where he made clear that the goal of Turkish foreign policy was once again to make the Balkans, the Caucasus and Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics. This March, in an address to the party faithful in Bursa, the Foreign Minister stated that the last century was a parenthesis and that Turkey would again unite Sarajevo with Damascus and Benghazi with Erzurum and Batumi.
This theme was echoed by Prime Minister Erdoğan recently, when on his return from North Africa he sent greetings to Istanbul's brother cities Sarajevo, Baku, Beirut, Skopje, Damascus, Gaza, Mecca and Medina, but with no mention of Europe. According to Nuray Mert, Associate Professor of Political Science at Istanbul University, who has previously clashed with Erdoğan, many observers have failed to recognize that neo-Ottomanism is an irredentist version of Turkish nationalism.
In a keynote speech at the Istanbul Forum last October, Erdoğan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalın spoke of a new geopolitical context and of a conscious decision by Turkish policy-makers to redefine Turkey's strategic priorities in the 21st century. According to Kalın, Turkey is beginning to read history from a non-Eurocentric point of view: the European model of secular democracy and pluralism has little traction in the Arab and larger Muslim world.
In a television interview early this year, Prime Minister Erdoğan mentioned that he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin that if Turkey were admitted to the Shanghai Five [Shanghai Cooperation Organization], they would say goodbye to the EU: "The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful and we have common values with them."
After the clashes between demonstrators and police around Gezi Park in Istanbul, the European Parliament a fortnight ago passed a strongly worded resolution, expressing not only deep concern at the disproportionate and excessive use of force by the Turkish police but also reiterating the rules of the club that Turkey ostensibly aspires to join.
The resolution pointed out that freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental principles of the EU and reminded Turkey that in an inclusive, pluralist democracy all citizens should feel represented. Furthermore, Prime Minister Erdoğan was urged to take a unifying and conciliatory position.
Apart from agreeing to abide by the decision of Istanbul's administrative court on the future of Gezi Park, and, if necessary, to hold a plebiscite, Erdoğan's response was predictable. He refused to accept the European Parliament's decision; he said it was both not binding for Turkey and "anti-democratic." Characteristically, he added, "Is it your place to pass such a resolution?"
The EU's decision to open one more negotiating chapter with Turkey, but to postpone the opening until October, means that there is still a slender thread binding Turkey to the EU. But Prime Minister Erdoğan's response to the demonstrations could usher in a new era of intolerance and repression.
At a number of mass rallies under the slogan "Respect for the National Will," Erdoğan has claimed that the widespread unrest is the result of an conspiracy between "the traitors inside and their partners outside" to destabilize the Turkish economy and the government's achievements. More specifically, he has accused "the interest rate lobby," which is understood to be a reference to the Jews. Yeni Şafak, an Islamist daily, has even alleged that the protests are an American Jewish plot organized by the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] and the American Enterprise Institute.
A round-up of protesters has already begun and the Turkish intelligence service [MIT] has launched an investigation into foreign links. Moreover, Interior Minister Muammer Güler has spoken of the need for a regulation to take action against those who provoke the public via the social media. A number of television channels have also been fined for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests, as the Radio and Television Supreme Council [RTÜK] consider this "harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people."
Foreign Minister Davutoğlu in his interview with Cairo Review said that history is replete with examples of regimes failing to survive when they lost their legitimacy in the eyes of their people. It might not have occurred to the AKP government that unless it changes course, it could suffer the same fate.
Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press.