ISTANBUL // Cracks are appearing within Turkey’s leadership on the issue of the country’s long-standing aim to join the European Union, as frustration grows with years of deadlock in membership talks.
While Abdullah Gul, the president, has been stressing the importance of Europe as a catalyst for the democratisation of Turkey despite the difficult membership negotiations, some government officials question Europe’s significance for a country that they feel is increasingly becoming a key actor on the world stage in its own right.
Turkey started EU membership talks in 2005 but has failed to make much headway, partly because of resistance against the Muslim country’s accession in key EU countries like France and Germany. The result of last Sunday’s elections in Germany, which strengthened Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Turkey sceptic, means that resistance is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Mr Gul said this week that moving closer to the EU remained a “strategic approach” for Turkey and that the country might one day join a restructured European Union that could emerge in the coming years.
“It is obvious that the EU will maybe develop a new structure in the next five to ten years,” Mr Gul said during a visit to New York this week, according to a transcript of his statements posted on the presidency’s website.
He was referring to discussions within the EU about a “two tier Europe”, with a core group of member countries that share the Euro as a single currency and an outer layer of countries that do not. “We analyse this realistically and prepare ourselves accordingly,” Mr Gul said.
The president stressed the role of the EU negotiation process in transforming Turkey in recent years, a period that saw a number of political reforms and an unprecedented economic boom. “We have profited immensely from that process, not only from the viewpoint of politics and democratic standards, but also as far as the establishment of free [market] economy conditions is concerned.”
But in stark contrast to Mr Gul, some government officials have said it was time for Turkey to end the EU bid.
Yigit Bulut, an adviser to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote in a newspaper article this week that the country should look for options of regional cooperation elsewhere.
“I think Turkey can be successful in new models to be created in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa and should be saved from the ever-postponed and imaginary ‘European Union scenarios,’” Mr Bulut wrote in the pro-government Star newspaper. “There is a ‘new world’ in front of us.”
Egemen Bagis, the government minister responsible for EU affairs, has said Turkey’s membership talks with Brussels might ultimately turn out to be futile.
Mr Bagis said last weekend that his country may never join the EU because of “prejudices” of member states against Turkey.
It was “necessary that Turkey become a member” of the EU, Mr Bagis said during a conference in Ukraine, according to news reports. But he added: “I think there is a higher possibility in the long run that it will be a country that is close to the EU but not a member, like Norway.”
Norway, a rich Scandinavian country, has access to the EU’s single market and works closely with the EU in visa, police and defence issues but has decided not to become a member of the bloc.
For Mr Bagis, the relationship between Norway and the EU could be a model for future Turkish-European ties because it reflects the strength and independence of a country that chooses to stay outside the Union. “The EU needs Turkey much more than Turkey needs the EU,” he said in July.
Mr Bagis is not the only government minister critical of the EU. In June, economy minister Zafer Caglayan rejected EU complaints about the heavy-handed clampdown by Turkey’s police on anti-government protests, saying that “Turkey does not need orders from the EU”.
Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist and EU expert in Istanbul, said there were two camps in the Turkish leadership. Mr Gul and Ali Babacan, a deputy prime minister in overall control of economic policy, were stressing “the importance of the EU as an anchor” for Turkey, Mr Aktar told The National this week. “Other members of the cabinet are just dreaming of a superpower Turkey that does not exist.”
Mr Aktar said the rift in the leadership was likely to be resolved only in the context of a larger review of Turkey’s foreign policy that he expects after local and parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2015.
Volkan Vural, a retired Turkish ambassador, this week called for a new set of reforms by Turkey to move closer to the EU.
“Right now, Turkey is not mature enough for the EU,” Mr Vural told a panel at the Kadir-Has-University in Istanbul. The country should strengthen democracy and the rule of law before expecting progress in EU matters, he said.
But the government is under no immediate pressure by voters to move ahead in the EU issue. According to a poll released last week, support for EU membership in Turkey has fallen to an all-time low.
In the poll for the German Marshall Fund, an independent US institution supporting stronger ties between the US and Europe, 44 per cent of Turkish voters said they supported the aim of EU accession, down from 73 per cent in 2004. In the same period, the percentage of Turks opposed to the EU increased from nine to 34.