October 12, 2011 / 3:56 PM / 6 years ago

Turkey looks east as EU accession prospect recedes

ANKARA (Reuters) - Cold-shouldered by the European Union it wants to join, NATO member Turkey is turning east politically and economically for the respect it feels it lacks in the West.

A rising Muslim democracy, Turkey began accession talks with Brussels in 2005, but progress has been painfully slow, hobbled by tensions between Ankara and EU-member Cyprus as well as opposition within France and Germany.

On Wednesday, the European Commission said no progress was achieved in the last year, raising new doubts over whether Turkey will ever become a full EU member.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has warned that a vigorous Turkey would not wait at the EU's doors "like a docile supplicant" and slammed European societies as "near geriatric."

His bitter mood is shared by many ordinary Turks who say they feel increasingly unwelcome in Europe.

Ecevit Iyit, 38, said he had applied four times for a visa to join his wife in Germany, where she works at a sausage factory in Stuttgart and lives with their three young children.

"I waited 11 months after one application before they rejected it," said Iyit as he waited at the gates of the German embassy in Turkey's capital Ankara. "They don't want us. Otherwise they would have taken us ages ago."

Turkey's foreign policy has been West-oriented for years, revolving around its EU application and NATO commitments.

But as its EU prospects recede, it has become increasingly independent-minded and keen to increase ties with the Middle East and North Africa -- a trend that has broad implications for the EU and the United States.

"There hasn't been a pan-European conversation about how on earth to deal with a Turkey that's not just assertive but is now threatening what to some Europeans are core interests and may pursue actions that could lead to conflict," said Daniel Korski, of the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations.

"There was a compromise before where those who want Turkey to be part of the EU and those who don't could agree we need a strategic dialogue with Turkey because it was becoming increasingly assertive and important. But some Europeans are now beginning to worry about the point of strategic dialogue with a country that's moving beyond the pale of normal behavior."

The shift is turning Turkey into a model in the Arab world at a time when the region is undergoing sweeping change while U.S. and European influence appears to be waning.

During a September tour of Arab countries, Erdogan was feted by adoring masses, portrayed himself as a Muslim leader, fustigated Israel and championed a Palestinian statehood.

Turkey is now a stable democracy and one of the world's most vibrant economies, which has given Turks a new sense of confidence, in contrast to the existential malaise plaguing Europe due to the financial crisis.

A survey on transatlantic trends by the German Marshall Fund think-tank published in September showed that a majority of Turks considered the Middle East more important to the country's economic interests and security than the EU.

"We shouldn't join the EU. They should just reject our application now," Hasan Filanci, a 25-year-old baker. "Europe is the sick man, write that down."

Bridge and Anchor

Despite waning domestic support for EU membership, about half of Turkey's trade is with the bloc and more than 75 percent of foreign direct investment comes from the EU.

After the release of the Commission's report, Ankara said on Wednesday "full membership to the union is Turkey's only goal."

Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet once compared Turkey to a galloping horse with its head on the continent of Europe and its body on the Asian continent. But heads can turn.

In recent months, Turkey has raised concerns it is changing its soft power for a more confrontational policy, upsetting even it staunchest supporters.

It has sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean to challenge EU member Cyprus' and Israel's offshore gas drilling projects, and has warned it would freeze ties with the EU if Cyprus assumes the bloc's rotating presidency next July.

The Commission on Wednesday said it was concerned about tensions between Ankara and Cyprus and urged Turkey to refrain from any threats or actions that could undermine relations.

As EU talks drag on, Turkey has failed this year to open even one new chapter, or policy area, of the 35 that a candidate country must complete before it can join the bloc.

Since membership talks started, Turkey has opened 13 chapters. Most of the rest are "frozen" by political disputes between Ankara and EU capitals.

For years, the argument in favor went that EU-driven political and economic reforms offered a policy anchor for a NATO country that borders Iran, Iraq and Syria and with a history of political instability and financial crises.

The EU prospect reassured investors and brought prestige to Turkey, which has access to European markets and has expanded business ties in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

For its part, EU reforms allowed civilian governments in Ankara to break the grip of the conservative army and judiciary.

Amanda Paul of the Brussels-based European Policy Center said Turkey should resist actions that could harm longer term interests, which lie in a strong anchoring to Europe.

"Turkey will never walk away. It has absolutely no reason to walk away. Even though there are no negotiations going on, Turkey still hopes for economic stability and bringing in foreign investment and that added extra sparkle," Paul said.

"Turkey is a crucial as an energy corridor and for other energy projects, and the EU does need to main strong links with Turkey."

Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak; Editing by Maria Golovnina

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