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EU and Turkey: still talking membership, barely

EU and Turkey: still talking membership, barely

Early in the last century, after an empire's fall, the founder of Turkey set his new nation on a westward course. For Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Europe was worthy of a pedestal, a model of how to be modern.
The vision of the former army officer leaped forward in 2005, when reform-minded Turkey began accession talks with the European Union. But the mood soured. While neither side says the process is dead, few question that Turkey's goal of joining Europe's club is in deep trouble.
On Tuesday, EU and Turkish envoys restart talks in a process that sometimes seems hollow and adrift. The dry give-and-take in conference halls in Brussels masks bigger issues about Europe and diversity, Islam and democracy, and ties between modern and developing nations.
Turkey's enthusiasm for European Union membership has eroded under internal tension, European skepticism and a dispute over divided Cyprus, an EU member. Key European leaders, in turn, fear an influx of migrants, worry about human rights and wonder about admitting a huge Muslim nation into a 27-nation bloc that has struggled to integrate its own Muslim minorities.
"We need to aim to achieve more progress this year in our relations," Ollie Rehn, the EU commissioner handling Turkey's bid, told visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
"We know our responsibilities," Davutoglu said, though he insisted that the EU at least help find a "comprehensive settlement" for Cyprus, where Turkish troops are based in the Turkish Cypriot north, a legacy of a 1974 invasion after a coup attempt by backers of union with Greece.
Turkey still fumes over the EU's 2004 decision to bring Greek Cypriots into the EU, leaving Turkish Cypriots outside even though they _ unlike the ethnic Greek side _ voted for reunification.
In all, the accession talks cover 35 different areas, or "chapters." Of these, only 10 have been opened in the last four years. Of the 25 that have yet to be opened, eight face a veto from EU member Greece because of the Turkish troops in north Cyprus.
"Turkey and the European Union have to stop wasting time on the path to membership to the Union and use this time in a much more productive way," Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Friday in Brussels.
Erdogan dismissed a vaguely defined idea, now circulating in some European circles, of a "privileged partnership" that would give Turkey some rights, but deny it full EU status. Turkey, a NATO member, is already involved in many European institutions.
"We expect Europe to keep its promises," said Erdogan, whose Islamic-oriented government has done as much or more than many of its predecessors to move Turkey, once a chaotic place prone to military coups, closer to Western-style norms.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country assumes the EU presidency this year, has said Turkey's membership negotiations are strategically vital for Europe. Still, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among the powerful players who oppose full accession.
Their opposition has contributed to distraction and anger toward the EU among the Turkish public, though the delicate political balance within the country has also stalled progress.
Turkey's government, locked in a power struggle with military-backed secular elites, seeks to avoid a nationalist backlash if it pushes EU reforms too quickly. Early progress was made, and most recently, parliament passed an amendment Friday that allows the prosecution of military personnel in civilian courts, not military ones, during peacetime.
This year, Turkey launched a Kurdish-language TV station on behalf of the long-suffering minority. This weekend, Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay said Turkey would likely meet a key EU demand by opening Halki, a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul.
But obstacles abound.
Turkey's mostly Kurdish southeast remains largely a no-go area for investors, and Kurdish rebels operate there. Turkey has yet to reform its constitution _ crafted after a 1980 military coup _ in line with EU demands for stronger civilian institutions. A law that bars insults to Turkish identity and has been used to prosecute intellectuals still exists. Turkey has refused to trade with Greek-run southern Cyprus.
Erdogan has faced accusations that he is interested in imposing religious values as well as Western-style ones, forcing him to fend off political and legal threats to his mandate.
But in dealing with Europe, Turkey has a newfound sense of leverage in an emerging role as a regional player, and a transit point for energy supplies heading west. It has improved ties with Greece, Syria, Russia and Black Sea and Arab neighbors, and mediated between Israel and Syria.
Erdogan's harsh criticism of Israel during its war in Gaza heightened Turkey's stature at a time when the West's reaction seemed tepid to many people around the world.
Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus project director for the International Crisis Group, said the impact of politics in Europe, notably right-wing gains in recent elections, has tainted debate over Turkey's EU bid.
"Politicians and commentators present the accession talks as if a poorer, over-populated Turkey was about to join tomorrow," Pope wrote in an analysis. "In fact, the process will take a decade or even two, by which time the relative positions of fast-growing Turkey and a more stagnant Europe will doubtless be much changed."
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Torchia reported from Istanbul, and Wielaard from Brussels. AP writer Gulden Alp contributed from Ankara, Turkey.


Updated : 2021-04-21 16:09 GMT+08:00