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Turkey caught at a crossroads

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Standing at the south-easterly edge of mainland Europe, Turkey's fortunes have always been closely linked to the continent's wider historical currents.

In 1683 the Ottoman Turks marched to the gates of Vienna as they built an empire stretching from the Balkans to the Middle East.

Even in terminal decline at the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire's nickname, the "sick man of Europe," was tacit acknowledgement that Turkey -- at least once -- had deserved a place among the great continental powers.

In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern republic, set about restoring Turkey to that status with an intensive program of "Europeanization" which included replacing Arabic with a new Roman alphabet and banning the fez.

Since the 1950s Turkey has been a key member of NATO, contributing the second largest armed forces to the military alliance after the U.S.

And just as wealthy Europeans once took the Orient Express to savour the exotic sights and flavors of Istanbul, now western holidaymakers flock to the beach resorts of Turkey's cosmopolitan coastline.

In a world shrunk by globalization and with Bulgaria's imminent entry set to expand the EU's eastern border with Turkey, one might imagine the ties between Europe and Ankara had never been closer.

Yet in October 2006 a poll in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet revealed that only a third of Turkey's population believe their country should join the EU, less than a year after the country began negotiations to become a full member -- having been an associate member since 1963. (Full Story)

Amid sharpened anti-European sentiment, more than three-quarters of Turks also said they don't trust it.

Turkish economy minister Ali Babacan, who is leading his country's negotiations in Brussels, believes those attitudes will change in time.

He said: "It will take time for Turkey to go through a reform in mindsets. Political reforms sometimes are easy on paper but the implementation becomes difficult."

But talks so far only seem to have accentuated cultural and political differences that many critics opposed to Turkish membership believe are so profound that discussions should never have started.

Ankara and Brussels are already at odds over the conditions imposed for entry which include Turkey making concessions on Cyprus, divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974. The Greek half of the island is already a full EU member. (Full Story)

Another controversial issue has proved to be the ongoing dispute over Turkey's refusal to recognize as genocide the massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians under Ottoman rule in 1915.

Last year the French parliament passed a bill that would make it a crime to deny that the killings constituted a "genocide."

"Should Turkey recognize the genocide of Armenia to join the European Union?" asked French President Jacques Chirac during a recent visit to Armenia. "Honestly, I believe so. Each country grows by acknowledging its dramas and errors of the past."

The Armenian question is also at the heart of another obstacle to Turkish membership: the limits placed on freedom of speech by a law making it a crime to insult "Turkishness" which has been used to prosecute writers and publishers including Orhan Pamuk, who last year won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

With that case dropped amid international pressure, many Turks considered the prestigious prize to be as much a statement about Pamuk's political activities as his literary skills.

The case has only served to highlight further concerns. As recently as 1997 Turkey's military intervened to overthrow a democratic government while the country's vast size, extremes of poverty and the ongoing dispute within its borders with Kurdish separatists hardly make it a model of a modern stable democracy.

A survey in June 2006 showed 55 percent of Europeans opposed Turkish membership. In Austria -- where long memories of the Turks' assault on their capital perhaps linger -- the figure was 81 percent.

But backers for Turkish entry into the EU believe the ultimate benefits far out-weigh any short-term obstacles.

"We have the chance to show that a Muslim country can become a full-fledged European democracy," said Hans-Joerg Kretschmer, the EU's envoy to Ankara.

Yet, ultimately, it is likely to be Turkey's economic and strategic importance that forces the EU into securing closer relations, whether its citizens and politicians like it or not.

With a market of 73 million people currently experiencing eight percent growth a year, Turkey's economy is growing too quickly to be ignored.

"[Turkish membership] is going to happen because it is in everybody's economic interests," said Angel Gurria, head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "It already is happening, the benefits are already accruing for Turkey."

And as the Silk Road once brought oriental riches to the salons of Paris and London, so Turkey's access to the energy rich regions of the Caucacus, the Middle East and Central Asia will make it a key gateway for Europe's gas and oil supplies in the coming decades.

Others warn that the dangers of an economically powerful but politically isolated Turkey are simply too dangerous to ignore.

British lawmaker Dennis McShane, a former UK government minister to Europe, wrote in the Financial Times that a Turkey spurned by the EU could form a Black Sea alliance with Russia, or turn towards Iran and Pakistan to form a "crescent of influence and power" linking a series of semi-military Islamic states from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

"An independent Turkey, free of ties to the EU, could also clash with European foreign policy goals by aggressively pursuing its interests in the Mediterranean or the Middle East," warned McShane.

"Europe is doing its level best to tell Turkey it is no longer wanted as part of the European Union. It is a high-risk game with little to gain and everything to lose."


    • Cyprus warns Turkey on EU entry
    • Only third of Turks say EU a must


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