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Where does Turkey's future lie?

Gavin Hewitt | 14:39 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

UK Prime Minister David Cameron (centre) inspects honour guard with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 27 Jul 10In Ankara today David Cameron made an impassioned pitch for Turkey to become part of the European Union. "I'm here," the British Prime Minister said, "to make the case for Turkey's membership of the EU. And to fight for it".

The Prime Minister said he was "angry" that Turkey's progress towards EU membership had been frustrated. He promised to remain Turkey's strongest advocate for EU membership. It was, he said, "something I feel very passionately about".

This fulsome embrace needs to be seen against recent fears that Turkey is increasingly looking east. The Americans say Turkey is being pushed to look for "other alliances" because it feels snubbed by Europe. Washington partly blamed European coolness for the fact that Turkey voted against new sanctions on Iran.

Certainly there is a confidence, even a swagger to Turkey. Its economy is growing by 11% a year. With a powerful economy comes influence. Ankara has been busy building links with Syria and Iran. It wants to become a power in the Muslim world. Its biggest trading partner is now Russia, not the EU.

There are plenty of voices in Turkey who believe they can do without the EU. Faith in eventual membership is ebbing away.

What has brought this about?

The EU accession talks are going nowhere. They are stalled with no breakthrough in sight. In truth neither President Sarkozy of France nor Chancellor Merkel of Germany wants Turkey as a full EU member. They want Turkey to settle for a second-class "privileged partnership". The French are committed to holding a referendum on Turkey's accession.

The Turkish view is that the "old powers" don't want another big player in the club. They suspect that public opinion in much of Europe is lukewarm or even hostile about 75 million Muslims joining the EU. The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, said "the EU will only be a Christian club without Turkey". He also, at one point, denounced what he called Angela Merkel's "hatred against Turkey".

There are, however, real issues that affect the road to EU membership.

Cyprus is a major roadblock. Turkey does not recognise Cyprus or allow its ports to be used by Cypriot vessels. It didn't help that a veteran nationalist, Dervis Eroglu, was elected president in the Turkish-backed area of northern Cyprus.

The EU is a secular union and there are fears that the Turkish government is moving away from secularism.

Turkey will also be judged on its stance towards Iran and its nuclear programme. On Monday the EU agreed on tough new sanctions against Tehran. Turkey faces a choice of either supporting the EU or enabling Iran to bypass the new restrictions.

David Cameron said today that "it's Turkey that can help us stop Iran from getting the bomb". He did not flinch from laying out the case against the Iranian regime: "Iran is enriching uranium to 20 per cent with no industrial logic for what they are doing other than producing a bomb."

Iran is rapidly becoming the biggest test as to where Turkey's interests lie.

Then there are the fears that if Turkey joins the EU, Europe will lose its identity. The politicians will have to have that discussion with the people of Europe if Turkey is to join. The people may have to be consulted. David Cameron addressed those concerns directly today "I will argue that the values of real Islam are not incompatible with the values of Europe."

Turkey for its part is watching and deciding whether it can be a bridge between East and West. The Turkish President, Abdullah Gul, said recently that Europeans "are at a point where they need to decide whether the Union is a closed entity, whether the current borders of the EU will define it for eternity, or whether it should plan 50 years ahead and think of its grandchildren, the future".

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