Interviewed last July on Turkish television channel Kanal 24, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan half-jokingly referred to his response to Vladimir Putin's teasing question, “But why are you still interested in Europe?” “Well, bring us into the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)”, replied the Turkish Prime Minister, “and we'll forget about the European Union.”

On January 25, Erdogan returned to the subject on the same television channel. This time, though, he wasn't joking. The hypothesis, he felt, had entered the realm of the “serious”, and the realm of “intentions”.

He recalled what he had told Putin and strove to make it clear that he had seriously evaluated the scenario of abandoning the goal of the European Union and of joining SCO. Noting that Turkey shared some values with the member countries of an organisation that was turning out to be an alternative to the EU, he said: “The group of five of Shanghai is better and stronger.”

Shanghai Five

Although the remarks were made hastily on television, they nevertheless clearly reflect the feelings, if not the intentions, of the prime minister on the issue. The first alternative that sprang to his mind, discouraged by the process of accession to the EU, is the group of the “Shanghai Five” (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan) which became “six” in 2001, when Uzbekistan joined.

The organisation promotes cooperation between its members in security, energy, trade and political matters. Turkey does not have observer status, but it has just become a “dialogue partner”. Turkey could, the PM asserted, join the SCO at the same time as India and Pakistan. This remark let drop by Erdogan may be a way for him to score some points and force the EU down off the fence and to make a decision on Turkey's proposed accession.

It also reveals, especially if the EU fails to budge, that Erdogan is determined to make this notion of joining the SCO one of the top priorities of Turkish foreign policy.

Change of course

It's clearly a subject that will call for much thought and debate, since it would result in a change of course for Turkey. If it turned its back on the West and looked East, it would find itself in a unique position, in both internal and external policy. It remains to be seen whether Russia and China will want a NATO member in their organisation. If that answer is yes, the next question is whether NATO will go along with it.

The real question is whether the SCO truly is a better alternative for Turkey. Principally because the EU, despite the crisis it is in today, preserves an undeniable superiority in a whole slew of areas, such as democratic values and economic integration.

Certainly, Turkey will find it useful to collaborate, as part of its ambitious foreign policy, with organisations such as the SCO – but it would be wise to measure the impact this could have if it meant turning its back on the West. The truth is, it's no longer a joking matter.