ISTANBUL // Turkey has embarked on the road to a "Middle Eastern Union" as an alternative to the European Union, according to some observers, after Ankara unveiled its vision for a giant free-trade zone spanning from the Bosphorus to Sudan and Morocco.
The country has taken the first step towards forming the bloc by signing an agreement with three southern neighbours - a move being viewed in some quarters as further evidence that Ankara is losing interest in joining the EU. "Turkey's new aspiration: Middle Eastern Union," the Milliyet daily newspaper trumpeted on its front page after the signing of a free-trade agreement between Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan during a Turkish-Arab forum in Istanbul last week. According to the agreement, the four countries will drop all trade and visa restrictions between them.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister, said this was only the beginning. His country was in favour of strengthening co-operation within a region spanning from Turkey to equatorial Africa, he said. "We want to turn this region into a security region, into a region of economic integration." Mr Davutoglu did not present any concrete proposals to make that giant new trade zone a reality, and there was no sign that his statement had been coordinated in advance with any of the two dozen countries that would make up a bloc reaching from the Black Sea to the Gulf of Guinea. Neither did Mr Davutoglu address the question of how realistic the chances are to create a regional pact that would bring together sworn enemies like Iran and Israel.
But despite the unanswered questions, the signing of the regional trade agreement with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, along with Mr Davutoglu's enthusiastic words about a wider co-operation, were enough to cause alarm among critics of Ankara's conservative religious government. Such critics, as well as politicians in the West, are concerned that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, wants to replace Turkey's historic mission of integration with the West with a long-term strategy to seek closer union with the Muslim world.
This so-called "axis" debate has been around for some time, fanned by Mr Davutoglu's ambitious new foreign policy, which is based on a perception of Turkey as a regional centre of power. In recent years, the country has significantly improved its relations with nations such as Syria and Iran, while ties with Israel, a traditional ally, have deteriorated. Last week, Turkey openly defied the United States, its single most important ally, by voting against new sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. "Turkey has brought religion to the forefront of its foreign policy," Kamran Inan, a former Turkish diplomat and government minister, told the Vatan daily.
"It is the latest fashion to create co-operation with the Middle East, to create a union [with Middle Eastern countries] and to be against the EU," he added, labelling such developments "very dangerous". Onur Oymen, a former ambassador and prominent member of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, the country's biggest opposition party, said Turkey was "sliding towards a Middle Eastern axis, towards religious, traditional and authoritarian regimes".
Deniz Bolukbasi, another former diplomat and member of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, said Mr Erdogan was seeking close ties with leaders of Iran and Hamas. Mr Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has denied the allegations. Taner Yildiz, the energy minister, said Turkey remained committed to becoming a member of the EU and was engaged in "strategic co-operation" with the United States. But those western ties "do not mean that we will not co-operate with Arab countries, with the Middle East," he insisted.
This week, Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president and a former prime minister and foreign minister of the AKP, also dismissed the axis debate as baseless. Those arguing that Turkey's foreign policy axis was shifting were doing so "either because of a lack of information or because of bad intent", the president told reporters. One reason the axis debate has attracted so much new attention is that Turkey's relations with the EU seem to have hit a dead end.
Although the country's membership negotiations started in 2005, progress has been painfully slow. A growing sense of frustration has led to speculation that Turkey may be looking for friends elsewhere. The unsolved Cyprus conflict and the open resistance of some EU members to Turkey's efforts to join the Union have drained the Turks' enthusiasm for Europe, according to some politicians and diplomats.
A recent poll found only slightly more than half of Turkish voters favoured joining the EU, down from approval rates of 70 per cent several years ago. One in three Turks say the Europeans will never take in their country. Asked where Turkey's EU application stood, a high-ranking Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, recently replied: "Nowhere". "We are making all efforts, but nothing is going on,"he said, adding that there was now a real chance that Turkey's negotiation process would grind to a complete halt by the end of the year.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, recently voiced fears that the EU had pushed Turkey towards the East by dragging its feet over Ankara's membership application. His view is shared by many in Turkish government and diplomatic circles. The Turkish diplomat admitted Turkey had not done enough to implement EU reforms, but said they would still be possible, even under the limited progress of talks in Brussels. He said it remained hard to motivate politicians and bureaucrats under the current circumstances. "With no end in sight, it is difficult," he said.