Why Turkey Still Gets a Cold Shoulder From the E.U.

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Burhan Ozbilici / AP

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron, second from left, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspect a guard of honour before their talks in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, July 27, 2010.

For over half a century, Turkey has patiently sat in the antechamber to Europe's grand saloon, waiting for the moment that the doors will swing open and it can finally take its place with the rest of the European Union.

Turks grumble about the delays, many suspecting that the E.U. has been dangling false promises over the years. This week, however, their frustrations found an echo from within the E.U. itself. Speaking in Ankara Tuesday, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said he was "angry" at the slow pace of negotiations, as he pledged to "pave the road from Ankara to Brussels." Cameron said those who opposed Turkey's membership "were driven by protectionism, narrow nationalism or prejudice," and he accused them of "willfully misunderstanding Islam" as they threw up their roadblocks.

Cameron's speech was widely welcomed in Turkey, but there are doubts about whether the newly minted British leader — or anyone else — will be able to put the country's E.U. ambitions back on track. Indeed, Turkey's bid is in worse shape than at any time since E.U. governments recognized the country as an official candidate in 2004. Even the most optimistic scenarios say it will be at least 15 years before Turkey joins, if at all. The membership talks have been painfully slow, and only 13 of the 35 "negotiating chapters" have been opened. Eight chapters — including the free movement of goods and workers — remain closed until Turkey agrees to open its sea and airports to Cyprus, an E.U. member that Ankara does not recognize.

Many E.U. governments have hardened their positions toward Turkey in recent years. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are vehemently opposed to membership and want Turkey to settle for a second-class "privileged partnership." Stating bluntly that Turkey is in Asia Minor, Sarkozy has said he refuses to be the one to "tell French schoolchildren that the borders of Europe extend to Syria and Iraq." And it's not only Europe's heavyweights who are blocking Turkey's accession: Earlier this year, Bulgaria demanded that Turkey first pay compensation for the expulsion of Thracians by Ottoman forces in the early 20th century. This all amounts to "Turkey bashing," says former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, who last September led a high-profile panel on Turkey's accession process that castigated E.U. leaders for playing on popular fears in a bid for easy votes.

After years of being rebuffed by Europe, Turkey is smarting. A 2008 poll found Turkish support for E.U. membership had fallen to 42% from over 70% in 2004. Another survey, this March, found that 65% of Turks do not think their country will every join the E.U, and nearly half feel Turkey is not really part of the West. As enthusiasm dips, so does the momentum for the political reforms so crucial to Turkey's accession, creating a vicious circle. Thus Turkey has failed so far to bring its legal system, its media laws, its civil protections and minority rights into line with E.U. norms. Amnesty International says torture is on the rise, while the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has named Turkey one of the worst countries in the world for refugees.

The deteriorating membership talks have coincided with Turkey's increasing outreach to its Eastern neighbors, notably Iran, Sudan and Syria, not to mention Hamas — which all have near-pariah status in the West. Turkey's offer in May to help enrich Iran's uranium supply puts it on a direct collision course with the E.U., which Monday agreed tough new sanctions on Tehran.

Yet Turkey's growing ambivalence toward the West is only partly explained by the cold shoulder it's getting from the E.U., according to Senem Aydin, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels and assistant professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. "You can't blame Europe for everything," she says. "It is also due to the dynamics within Turkey. There is a domestic constituency that wants to see a more assertive Turkey."

There is also a financial logic to Turkey's leaning East, which reflects the nation's growing economic confidence as it positions itself as a hub of oil-and gas-rich central Asian states. Turkey is now the 16th largest economy in the world. Although its economy shrank by 4.7% last year, it has bounced back, surging 11.7% in the first quarter of 2010.

Backers of Turkey's accession efforts say it would anchor the country to the West. They include U.S. President Barack Obama, who told the Turkish parliament last year that the E.U. would gain from the "diversity of ethnicity, tradition and faith" of Turkish membership. But the E.U. is no longer the main obstacle in Turkey's path, says Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, research director at the Center for International Studies and Research, a Paris-based think tank. It's time for Turkey to get out of its own way. "A few years ago, you could make the case that with its timidity and procrastination, the obstacles were on the European side," she says. "Now, the burden of proof is on the Turkish side. Turkey is changing tack and you really wonder where it is headed. Cameron's speech is ill-timed: this is not the moment to deliver any gifts."

Cameron still has a well of global political capital to draw on, but for all his fresh-faced enthusiasm, he is part of a dwindling band of backers for Turkey's bid — in both the E.U. and Ankara. Even with his support, Turkey may have to resign itself to a long, long wait at the E.U.'s door.