Page last updated at 04:35 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 05:35 UK

Turkey's EU bid runs into trouble

By William Horsley
European affairs analyst

Turkish FM Ali Babacan  (23/2/08)
Foreign Minister Babacan admits Turkey needs legal reforms

Turkey's attempt to enter the EU is now being called Europe's "biggest project". But new doubts have emerged that it will ever happen.

Uniting Turkey, a large mainly Muslim nation, with the European Union is Europe's biggest peace project since World War II, Turkey's Foreign Minister Ali Babacan says.

But he complains that some EU countries are holding Turkey back out of political ill-will.

Turkey has had enough of being Europe's whipping boy.

After nine years of frustrating efforts as an official candidate to join the European Union but still without a guarantee of membership in the end, its leaders now have a tougher message for Europe - play fair, because you need us as much as we need you.

Veiled warning

Mr Babacan told BBC News "Europe should never think that Turkey has no choice".

This did not mean there was any "other alliance or group of countries we might join forces with", the minister explained. But the relationship must be a two-way street, of benefit to both sides.

An AKP supporter in Istanbul
The ruling AK Party's agenda is under intense scrutiny
The foreign minister's veiled warning came this week during a conference in Istanbul of the British Wilton Park organisation for politicians and policy-makers to assess Turkey's path towards EU accession.

Last week Turkey's most ardent supporters of its European hopes were shocked when the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told students in Sarajevo that his country would have "nothing to lose" if Europe kept it out. The EU would be the loser, Mr Erdogan claimed.

Turkey's 45-year-old commitment to integration in Europe has hit serious turbulence. And "enlargement fatigue" among the EU's 27 member states is not the main reason. The issue is Turkey itself.

Turkish hopes are threatened by flagging popular support on both sides.

Feeling unwanted

A key Eurobarometer opinion poll shows that 59% of Europeans oppose Turkish membership, with only 28% in favour. The present leaders of Germany and France both say Turkey lacks the European and democratic credentials to take on EU membership.

Among Turks, too, support for EU accession has fallen sharply, from three-quarters of the population three years ago to half or even less today. Mr Babacan says his people have been made to feel "unwanted" in Europe.

Both sides have a list of complaints.

The EU complains that Turkey's democratic reforms have slowed since 2005 when its membership talks began.

Now the European Commission is warning that a high-profile court case could damage Turkey's long-term European ambitions. Turkey's constitutional court is to hear the chief prosecutor's case for closing down the ruling AK Party, over alleged breaches of Turkey's secular ideals.

The EU's patience has been stretched to the limit over the Turkish government's delays in amending its notorious Article 301 law, under which scores of journalists and writers have been prosecuted for the vague offence of "insulting Turkishness".

Cyprus dispute

Since the end of 2006 Turkey's painstaking talks aimed at EU accession have been pushed into the slow lane to censure the country for its refusal to allow free trade in goods from a new EU member, Cyprus.

Cypriots gather as Ledra Street reopens, 3 Apr 08
Efforts to reunite divided Cyprus are gaining momentum
Turkey blames the EU for letting in Cyprus before ending the island's division between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

And Turkey in turn accuses Europe of not playing fair.

Mr Babacan says France's President Nicolas Sarkozy tried to push Turkey into accepting an alternative to EU membership by launching his plan for a "Mediterranean Union" of EU and neighbouring states. That threat now seems to have eased, but the Turks have not yet said if they will take part.

Turkish officials object to the exceptional conditions placed in advance on the terms of their eventual membership - including the demand by current EU states to be allowed to place permanent restrictions on the movement of Turks to work elsewhere in Europe.

Turkish leaders express bafflement that Europe does not show more understanding for what they have already done.

Turkey, they point, was a loyal member of Nato even before the former West Germany.

It is now Europe's sixth-largest economy, a major transit route for Europe's energy needs, and a serious regional power. And at home the government's own survival is under threat from nationalist judges and political foes.

But still, says Mr Babacan, some European leaders use populist rhetoric, exaggerating the risks of mass immigration and the Turks' Muslim faith to stir up voters' fear and win elections.

Turkey also has its allies, including Britain.

UK Minister for Europe Jim Murphy told the Istanbul gathering that bringing Turkey into the European Union would dispel the "myths" about a clash of civilisations, and be the most important strategic decision the EU had ever made. Failure, he said, was unthinkable.

The EU as a whole still says Turkey will not be ready to join until at least 2014, if at all.

Turkey's foreign minister puts the question the other way round. He asks: when will Europe be ready for Turkey?

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