Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on September 16 said that Ankara could "part ways" with the European Union if required. His remark was made as his foreign minister fought to derail an India-Middle East-Europe trade corridor plan that, to Erdogan’s annoyance, entirely excludes Turkey.
Erdogan’s comment on the future of Turkish and EU relations was in fact made in response to questions on a newly released European Parliament report on Turkey that says the country’s frozen EU accession process cannot resume under present circumstances and calls for the bloc to explore "a parallel and realistic framework" for its ties with Ankara. However, the discontent over the trade corridor is rumbling in the background.
Turkey’s application to join the EU, lodged 24 years ago, has gone nowhere in recent years given European concerns over matters including human rights violations by Ankara and the Erdogan administration’s lack of respect for the rule of law.
"The EU is trying to break away from Turkey," Erdogan told reporters ahead of a trip to New York for the UN General Assembly. "We will make our evaluations against these developments and, if necessary, we can part ways with the EU."
Turkey's foreign ministry said ahead of Erdogan’s comments that the European Parliament report contained unfounded allegations and prejudices. The report, it added, took "a shallow and non-visionary" approach to the country's ties with the EU.
However, while the report may have provoked some real displeasure in Ankara, it is the trade corridor, announced at the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 8, that appears to have stirred far more concern and anger among Erdogan and his top officials.
“There is no corridor without Turkey,” Erdogan fumed to journalists during his return from the G20 get-together: “The most convenient line for traffic from east to west has to pass through Turkey.”
On September 17, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, in pointed remarks made to the Financial Times, said that “experts had doubts that the primary goal [of the India-Middle East corridor] was rationality and efficiency” and suggested that “more geostrategic concerns” were at play. “A trade route does not only mean meeting trade alone. It’s also a reflection of geostrategic competition,” Fidan was quoted as saying.
The FT reported that Turkey was now in “intensive negotiations” with regional partners over an alternative to the India-Middle East-Europe trade corridor plan agreed at the G20 summit. The trade route as outlined so far would transport goods from the subcontinent through the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel to European markets. It is backed by both the US and EU.
The alternative touted by Turkey is referred to as the “Iraq Development Road initiative”. It would see goods transited from the Iraqi Gulf port of Grand Faw to Turkey and onwards to Europe. Fidan insisted to the UK daily that “intensive negotiations” were under way with Iraq, Qatar and the UAE on this project, which would be forged “within the next few months”.
The Iraq Development Road plan would rely on 1,200 km (746 miles) of high-speed rail and a parallel road network.
Analysts, however, are doubtful over the plan’s feasibility, pointing to challenging financial and security issues.
“Turkey lacks the financing to realise the full scope of the project, and seems to be counting on UAE and Qatari support to build the proposed infrastructure,” Emre Peker, Europe director at the Eurasia Group think tank, told the FT. “For that to happen, the Gulf states would need to be convinced of good returns on investment — something that is not imminently evident with the [Development Road] project.”
Peker was further reported as saying that there were also “issues around security and stability [in Iraq] that threaten both construction and the long-term feasibility of the project”.