Turkey questions its EU future as Brussels looks to Balkans

Reuters

* Ankara's decades-old application is stalled

* Balkans make strides towards EU

* Turkey says may have to consider alternatives tomembership

By Adrian Croft

BRUSSELS, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Turkey has been trying for yearsto join the European Union, presenting itself as a growingeconomic and political power and a bridge to Asian and MiddleEastern markets.

But the next country to join the EU's existing 28 members ismore likely to be one of six small Balkan countries, five of which still formed part of Yugoslavia when Turkey made its firstmembership bid.

Several powerful EU states are reluctant to open the door toa large, mainly Muslim country, even a member of the NATOWestern military alliance, fearing a troublesome integrationwhereas small countries have a track record of smooth accession.

While the EU focuses its attention elsewhere, the Turkishgovernment and public are increasingly despondent and havestarted to wonder whether it really needs Europe after all.

"I guess that nobody wants to say that we are not going tocontinue with the accession process, neither the EU nor Turkey,"said Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, speaking at aBrussels think-tank in September.

"But there will be one day in which we will have to decideon what to do about it, because this is going nowhere."

Joining the EU can bring the benefits of easy access to theworld's largest trading bloc, free movement of workers, fundingfor poorer regions and infrastructure and the chance to belongto a relatively stable political union.

Over the next decade or so, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegroand Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo may all be able to take advantageof those perks, following Slovenia and Croatia to a spot on themembers' list.

Meanwhile Turkey's membership bid has been virtually frozenfor three years, held back by political obstacles and resistancein some EU countries, including Germany, France and Austria.

Support for EU membership among the Turkish public fell to44 percent this year from 73 percent in 2004, according to arecent German Marshall Fund report.

Ankara's chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis said last monthhis country would probably never join the EU because of theattitudes of the bloc's existing members.

GEOGRAPHY

A senior official with direct knowledge of enlargement discussions said EU leaders were not focused on Turkey whichwould be the most populous member, giving it the largest shareof seats in the European Parliament and influence acrossEurope's institutions.

"There is a real openness to enlargement to the Balkans andfurther east (in eastern Europe)," the official said, pointingout that "six or seven" countries in the region could ultimatelybecome members, boosting the EU's total to 34 or 35 states.

"The Western Balkans are very close to Europe. But Turkey isqualitatively different for all sorts of reasons. It's an issueof geography, the fact that it is a Muslim country, the factthat public opinion in some member states is very stronglyagainst it becoming a member."

Turkey is still trying to win favour in Brussels. A packageof reforms unveiled on Monday, including allowing education inlanguages other than Turkish at non-state schools and a possiblelowering of the threshold for a political party to enterparliament, was welcomed by the European Commission.

The steps, designed to salvage a peace process with Kurdishinsurgents, could help Turkey get higher marks in theCommission's annual progress report due on Oct. 16, helping itsprospects of winning approval from EU states to open talks on anew policy area, known as a chapter, towards membership.

But opening a new chapter - one of 35 it must complete -will not change the overall picture of a stuttering negotiation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives opposeTurkish EU membership on the grounds that its size would"overburden" the bloc. While she may be forced into a coalitionwith the Social Democrats or the Greens who want the EU tocontinue accession talks with Turkey, it is not a top priority.

Some EU states, including Britain, strongly support Turkey'smembership bid, seeing the addition of a dynamic economy and apowerful player in Middle East politics as a benefit for the EU.

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch liberal member of the EuropeanParliament, believes the EU must continue to work on Turkishaccession while pushing for reforms.

"Our relationship is going through difficult times ... butas a trade partner, as a NATO ally, as a neighbour in acomplicated Middle East, we must be aware of the importance ofthe relationship between the EU and Turkey," she said.

"It doesn't mean that we should be without criticism."

Rights group Amnesty International accused Turkishauthorities on Wednesday of committing human rights violationson a massive scale in their attempts to crush protests earlierthis year, a report likely to be used as ammunition by thosesceptical of Turkish membership.

Turkey became an associate of the bloc in the 1960s butaccession talks launched in 2005 got bogged down in a disputeover the divided island of Cyprus, an EU member

Diplomats say making progress on reuniting Cyprus at talksthis month could be the key to moving talks forward.

ALTERNATIVES

Turkey is starting to look at what a relationship with theEU would look like if membership does not look achievable.

Turkish-EU ties are already strong. A U.S. ally which joinedNATO in 1952 and is a committed member of the Western alliancewith its second-largest deployable military force, Turkey is avaluable foreign policy partner.

Trade and economic partnerships are also close. Yenel, theTurkish ambassador, was confident these ties would continueregardless of whether Turkey joins the bloc.

"The intrinsic link, the complex link with the EU willcontinue no matter what," he said.

But if talks on Cyprus fail, Ankara should recognise its EUmembership bid has stalled and tell Brussels what it wantsinstead, for example a free trade agreement, to replace theexisting customs union, Yenel said.

Chief negotiator Bagis was also confident that the EU andTurkey would continue to work side by side.

"In the long run I think Turkey will end up like Norway. Wewill be at European standards, very closely aligned but not as amember," he said.

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