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Turkey: Ankara Makes New Overtures On EU Membership, But Is Anyone Listening?

Turkey is again looking to boost its prospects for membership in the European Union. The theme is never far from the thoughts of Turkish leaders, and this week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting Germany and Italy to discuss Ankara's progress. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul also traveled to Austria with the same purpose. Turkey's membership, however, is an elusive goal.

Prague, 5 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Turkish membership in the European Union is a goal that has remained out of reach despite efforts by a generation of leaders in Ankara.

In the latest mission to push the matter forward, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is this week visiting two key European Union members -- Germany and Italy -- to discuss the issue.

The present governments of both Germany and Italy are seen as supportive of Turkey's bid to join the community of European nations, but if anything, the main German opposition parties appear to be hardening their resistance to Turkish membership.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- who met Erdogan in Berlin -- offered a measure of encouragement. He said he has much respect for the progress Turkey has made in reforms instituted under Erdogan's leadership.

Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its roots in the Islamist movement, have now passed seven reform packages designed to bring Turkey into line with EU norms on political and social issues.

In typically assertive fashion, Erdogan told journalists in Berlin on 3 September that it is not just a question of his country knocking on Europe's door.

"Let me make one more thing clear. It is not just Turkey that wants to join the EU. It is the EU that will expand by including Turkey," Erdogan said.

And despite Schroeder's attempt to be positive, the Turkish leader expressed dismay at what he sees as Germany's overall passivity on Turkish EU membership, and he warned of its consequences.

"The fact that we don't see any support on the part of Germany for our admission to the EU may hurt psychologically the majority of Turks who are in favor of joining the European Union," Erdogan said.

The main opposition parties in Germany -- the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- remain against Turkish membership. They believe Turkey is too big, too underdeveloped, and culturally too different to fit into the EU.

As CDU-CSU parliamentary manager Peter Ramsauer says: "We have always made clear that we in Europe want [as part of the European Union] that which stems from Western and Christian culture, and that which has manageable borders. That is the first condition. The other condition is that Europe -- even when it reaches completion -- must be capable of functioning."

Ramsauer says Turkey has to be excluded on both those conditions. He says there should be -- instead of EU membership -- a "very special relationship" between Turkey and the EU, in which the two sides can exercise close political, cultural, and economic relations.

Nevertheless, Turkey, through its own determination, has been able to make some tangible progress toward EU membership. At a December 2002 EU summit, Ankara won a pledge that the EU will meet to review Turkey's progress by the end of 2004, with a view to opening entry negotiations.

Resat Arim is a senior Turkish analyst at the Foreign Policy Institute of Ankara's Bilkent University. He says that, as a result, this year and next are of key importance for Turkey.

"The situation is this: the government said this year we are going to accomplish what is necessary as far as the legislation is concerned, and they did this. And they said that in the year 2004, there will be the implementation of this legislation. So the [Turkish leaders] are now traveling to explain now what they have achieved," Arim says.

Arim says Ankara is hoping for a positive report from the European Commission. The next regular annual report is due next month or in early November.

During a visit to Vienna on 3 September, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said he expects Ankara to join the EU "at the beginning of the next decade." He said Turkey's entry into the EU would be an enrichment, not a burden.

His Austrian counterpart, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said there is no reason to change the existing schedule and that progress toward membership will depend on the continued implementation of reforms.

Erdogan is due to arrive in Rome today, where he will meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

James Waltson is a senior analyst at Rome's American University. He says Berlusconi has been the most enthusiastic of the EU leaders toward Turkey.

"He is pushing the American agenda, which wants Turkey in [the EU] as a way of consolidating Western control, and Western influence, on Ankara. And Berlusconi would also like that," Waltson says.

Waltson believes the U.S. argument is a valid one: "Turkey is a large and heavily populated and geographically and strategically important country. To integrate it into an economic system and an embryonic political system would certainly make Turkey a safer place."

Nevertheless, he says the admission of Turkey can be seen as a high-risk venture for Europe. When Greece emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s, the same reasoning was applied to it, and Athens was successfully brought into the EU. But Greece is small, and the economic and political consequences to the EU of failure would have been negligible.

Turkey is very large -- nearly 70 million people -- and if anything went wrong, it could spell serious trouble for the EU.