ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey risks seeing its dream of European Union membership vanish unless it urgently pushes reforms, but to rebuild trust between the two sides EU members must send a clear message that Ankara’s bid is not doomed.
An EU enlargement progress report last week said Turkey had a long way to go, while Croatia, which began accession talks at the same time as Ankara, was at the doors of entering the bloc.
The report, which raps Turkey for slow progress on issues ranging from human rights to intellectual property protection to curbing the power of the military, has raised fresh doubts over whether this large and predominantly Muslim country of 70 million will ever become a full EU member.
“The million dollar question is whether Turkey will ever join the European Union,” said Amanda Akcakoca, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels.
“Trust is starting to ebb away between the EU and Turkey. Turkey has a lot of homework to do but it is important for the EU to send a symbolic message to Turkey,” Akcakoca said.
Turkey began accession negotiations in 2005, but the pace of reforms has since slowed and talks are moving at snail’s pace.
Analysts say political distractions at home and little appetite for enlargement among EU member states after the bloc’s costly expansion into central and eastern Europe have pushed the EU agenda to the backburner of Turkey’s ruling AK Party.
“We have reached a stalemate and it is difficult to see how Turkey and the EU will get out of it and gain momentum,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst for Eurasia Group.
“The longer it takes the tougher it will be for Turkey to enter the EU. There is a danger that slow progress will fuel a growing estrangement which will be difficult to repair.”
Turkey has always had a rocky relationship with the EU, clashing frequently over free speech, minority rights and the divided island of Cyprus.
Turkey had won praise for its efforts to stamp out police mistreatment in the past, but a rise in complaints of torture mentioned in the report has prompted fears that progress on key reforms may be stalling.
“There is a danger that in this stalemate we might see some progress slipping back,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund think-tank.
“It could start at low level and the government could say: ‘Ok, mistreatment of prisoners and torture is getting bad, but we have more pressing issues now’,” he said.
The EU wants Turkey to make progress on judicial reform, minority rights and to open its ports to traffic from Cyprus.
The ruling AK Party, which secured Turkey’s decades-long quest to officially launch EU membership negotiations, has repeatedly pledged to revive its EU drive.
But few observers have any faith Turkey’s bid will regain momentum in the near future, with municipal elections in March and a slowing economy dominating the government’s agenda.
“We risk being in 2009 with nothing on the menu,” a European Commission source, who declined to be named, said.
This stand-still would come from a combination of lack of reforms in Turkey and the opposition of some EU states’ to Turkey’s full membership. France, Cyprus and Germany are all blocking one or several areas -- so-called chapters of talks.
Analysts have said it will be decades, rather than years, before Turkey joins the EU.
Turkish officials complain of double standards, and have cited the example of Croatia, a Roman Catholic country of 4.4 million which has leapfrogged Turkey on the EU path.
At stake are broader security and energy repercussions for both Europe and Turkey, analysts say.
Turkey, a NATO member, is a key transit route of Central Asian gas for the West. Europe needs a stable Turkey and the EU membership is an anchor for financial and political stability.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Brussels
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