If logic worked in politics, the question to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should have been: Why has your country so passionately sought out, in vain, membership in the European Union?
Erdoğan talks about an "evil West" but wants to become part of it -- perhaps to "improve" it? Why did Turkey send its 15,000 sons, only to greet with honor 700 dead soldiers in a war that took place 8,000 km away on the Korean Peninsula? Turkey has been a full member candidate for the EU since 1987, but the Korean military campaign earned it NATO membership in 1952.
Since the 1950s, Turkey's soul-searching has never ceased. Hence the shocking news of July 9 that an all-smiles NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that Erdoğan, after several months of unilateral blockade, has agreed to send Sweden's accession protocol for joining NATO to the Turkish Parliament "as soon as possible" and to help ensure that the assembly approves it. As often happens in journalism, the "news" here is not in the headline -- even though "Turkey approves Sweden's NATO accession protocol" was the only breaking news a journalist could pick up.
Erdoğan's Islamist, anti-Western ideology is no secret to anyone. Shortly before the most recent presidential and parliamentary elections (May 14 and 28) Erdoğan accused Turkish opposition parties of having surrendered Turkey to a supposedly hostile West. In 2022, Erdoğan said that the West invaded the world with its soft power, including slavery, massacres and colonialism. In 2021, he declared the end of Western hegemony and of an understanding that accepts Western superiority. He has accused the U.S. administration numerous times of arming Kurdish militants in northern Syria while abstaining from selling weapons system to Turkey.
In 2017, he threatened the West: "If this [Islamophobia] persists no street in the world will be safe for Westerners." Erdoğan also claimed in 2017 that the "crusaders' mentality was attacking Turkey." And in 2018: "We are facing a new crusaders' alliance." Unsurprisingly, Erdoğan has described Germany and the Netherlands as "the remnants of Nazism."
Why does the man who so passionately hates Western civilization not feel politically comfortable without the institutional links binding his country to the West? The EU that Erdoğan verbally attacks has a population of 450 million and is four times richer than Turkey. With 40 percent of Turkey's overall exports, the EU is Turkey's top foreign market. With a poor foreign direct investment of $5.5 billion in the first half of 2023, Turkey is looking at the countries it deems as "remnants of Nazis." In that period, the top three foreign investors in Turkey were the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany.
According to the World Bank, in an April 2023 report:
"... productivity growth has slowed as reform momentum has waned over the past decade, and efforts have turned to supporting growth with credit booms and demand stimulus, intensifying internal and external vulnerabilities. High private sector debt, persistent current account deficits, high inflation, and high unemployment have been exacerbated by macro-financial instability since August 2018."
"Turkey is heading very rapidly to a currency crisis or, more formally speaking, balance of payments crisis," said Atilla Yeşilada, a Turkish analyst for GlobalSource Partners.
Erdoğan needs money. He needs it now, and preferably from Western markets instead of one-off cash injections from Russia and friendly Gulf states. "Linking Turkey's EU membership to Sweden's NATO accession protocol is as absurd as finding a linkage between Turkey in NAFTA in exchange for Mexico in the EU," one EU ambassador in Ankara told me on July 10.
Erdoğan is opening a new negotiation table. He will demand a revision of Turkey's 1995 customs union agreement with the EU and visa liberalization (looser visa rules for Turkish citizens), both of which were part of a 2016 deal between Ankara and Brussels but since then, have not progressed.
By demanding these, Erdoğan aims to:
Augment his international legitimacy, especially after his re-election as president on May 28, and
Keep Turkey within the EU membership process, which he calculates may give Turkey better borrowing options on international markets, as well as the possibility of sending 84 million more Turks into Europe and potentially changing its prevailing religion.
Erdoğan is clearly trying to signal to the U.S. Congress by flashing a more pro-Western, less pro-Russian, foreign policy calculus in the next couple of years. Could he be hoping that Congress will endorse the sale of F-16 Block 70 fighter jets to Turkey? There will be many horse-trading moments during the process, but this is the beginning of a new tactical warfare between Erdogan's Turkey and the West.
"The Swedes were too eager to receive Erdoğan's blessing," Eugene Kogan, a defense expert based in Tbilisi, Georgia, told the author on July 10, "and Erdoğan used that yearning to tie them down. Remember Gulliver in the Land of Lilliput?"
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a Charles Wax Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.