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Monday, September 23, 2013

Turkey’s Chief European Union Negotiator Acknowledges Turkey May Never Join Bloc

It has been an open secret for years that Turkey, a majority Muslim country with a strong dose of national pride, would reject joining the European Union rather than waiting for the bloc to deny it entry.

Now, in what appeared to be a tacit acknowledgement by a senior Turkish official that its decades-long bid to join the European alliance might fail, Turkey’s E.U. affairs minister, Egemen Bagis, said Saturday that Turkey would probably never join the union, the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Mr. Bagis said at a meeting in Yalta that prejudice in Europe was thwarting Turkey’s E.U. application much as it had undermined its bid to host the 2020 Olympics, according to a report Saturday in London’s Telegraph newspaper.

“They should understand that they are not hurting me by putting me on the back burner. They are hurting themselves,” the newspaper quoted Mr. Bagis as saying.

While he said that E.U. entry still remained a long-term goal, he stressed that Turkey was more likely to follow the example of Norway and to remain closely aligned with the alliance by adopting E.U. standards and retaining close economic ties, the paper said.

Europe has long had deep ambivalence about admitting Turkey, a country of 76 million, with skeptics citing the country’s geographic and cultural differences. Those doubts were further fanned during the recent bloody clampdown by the government on protesters in Taksim Square.

In June, influential ministers from Germany and France questioned whether Turkey had the democratic credentials to join the club.

“No democracy can be built on the repression of people who try to express themselves in the street,” France’s E.U. affairs minister, Thierry Repentin, said as the protests flared.

Then in July, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was more blunt, expressing his opposition to Turkey joining the E.U., and insisting, as the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, once did, that Turkey was not a part of Europe.

Newly re-elected Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has also advocated for a special partnership for Turkey that falls short of full membership - an idea that Ankara flatly rejects.

Mr. Bagis’s remarks came as a surprise because his mission for years has been to persuade the 28-nation European bloc that Turkey deserved membership. He has long passionately argued that Turkey could be the E.U.’s bridge between the East and West and help it to expand its clout in the Arab world.

Even if the European Union was more enthusiastic, Turks have themselves soured on Europe.

With the union buffeted by the euro crisis and the events of the Arab Spring creating opportunities for Turkey to expand its swagger in the region, many Turks are asking why they would want to join a sick club that in any case does not want to accept them as a full partners.

Skepticism of the .E.U in Turkey has also been fueled by a seemingly intractable political dispute with E.U. member Cyprus. And many Turks feel they are being discriminated against because their country has a Muslim majority.

According to a survey released last week by the German Marshall Fund, popular support in Turkey for E.U. membership has fallen to 44 percent from 73 percent in 2004.

Mr. Bagis, for his part, has been displaying increasing frustration with the Europeans’ frosty attitude toward Turkey. Criticizing European countries skeptical of Turkey’s E.U. membership bid and alluding to Turkey’s economic and political strength, Mr. Bagis recently underlined Turkey’s growing defiance.

“Turkey doesn’t need the E.U., the E.U. needs Turkey,” he told reporters in June. “If we have to, we could tell them, ‘Get lost, kid!’”