Geographically, Turkey is mostly in Asia. Less than five percent of its land is actually part of the European continent. Yet many publications such as The Economist magazine print stories about Turkey in their European column, not in their Middle East or Asian sections. Some Turks wistfully refer to Europe as the "old soil" - a throwback to the Ottoman days when Sultans in Istanbul ruled much of the Balkan Peninsula.
Today, the road to EU membership -- which represents the ultimate fulfillment of Turkey's European ambitions -- remains elusive and unpredictable. Sonar Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says EU negotiations will be a lengthy and difficult process. “I think of Turkey's EU accession as a train, it's going to be the slowest moving train in the world.”
But recent comments from Brussels indicate the train will not necessarily arrive to EU membership. On June 29, EU officials said accession talks would be open-ended with no guarantee of membership, which the Europeans say would happen at the earliest in 2014.
Enthusiasm for enlargement has waned in the wake of the French and Dutch no vote on the EU constitution. French President Jacques Chirac, a relatively strong advocate of Turkish membership, has said little about Turkey's prospects since a majority of French voters rejected the EU constitution last month. Analyst Soner Cagaptay finds this troubling “If the leadership in those countries yield to populous pressures about what Turkey accession means and how they don't want a large Muslim country in the European Union, they might make the unwise decision of stopping this accession train, which would be terrible for Europe. It would drive a wedge between Turkey and the European Union.”
Mr. Cagaptay adds that anti-European feeling in Turkey reflect Europe's attitude toward the Turks. “Turks relate to Europe through what I would call a love and hate relationship. On one hand, they see themselves as part of the western world. But on the other hand, whenever they are told by Europe that they are not good enough for Europe, the relationship quickly loses the love element and quickly turns into quite a strong anti-European resentment. So anytime the Turks feel they are being humiliated, are or not being treated with respect by the Europeans, you see an almost immediate rise of nationalism.”
Mr. Cagaptay says that despite the green light given by the European Union in December to begin accession talks this October, many Turks feel unfairly treated as Europeans continue to cast doubts on their E-U membership prospects. In Germany, the opposition Christian Democrats are against full membership and the new Pope (Pope Benedict XVI) contends that Turkey has represented another continent throughout history, not Europe.
Sabri Sayari, Director of the Institute for Turkish Studies at Georgetown University, says Turkish patience may be wearing thin. “In the wake of these more recent developments, the nationalists have joined ranks with some other groups such as the more fundamentalist Islamist groups and the far left. It has been a coalition of sorts that is reacting negatively. Their argument is that Turkey has made a number of reforms, for example, on Cyprus and the Kurdish issue. Yet none of this has really made Turkish membership more likely. The reaction is, ‘Why bother?’”
John Sitilides, Chairman of the Southeast Europe Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says Ankara's sweeping reforms have earned it the right to EU accession talks. ”It was a largely sluggish process until about 2.5 years ago. But since the accession of Prime Minister Recep Erdogen and his AKP party, Turkey has undergone astounding progress on meeting all of the criteria. And Mr. Erdogen has lived up to his commitment to see to it that the European Union has no excuse and no reason based on objective criteria to slow down in any way Turkey's forward progress.“
Mr. Sitilides says Ankara's EU-driven reforms in recent years have boosted the rights and liberties of most Turkish citizens.
Most analysts say one issue that troubles many Europeans is the sheer size of Turkey. If it joined the European Union, it would be one of the most populous E-U nations, along with Germany and France. And Europeans fear that would send large numbers of Muslim Turks into the heart of Europe -- a perception partly rooted in the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire, says Georgetown University's Sabri Sayari. But, he adds, few Europeans realize that Turkey has much to offer the European Union. “The fact that Turkey is a big market and would provide many assets for the new Union, both in terms of being a large market and fast development that would offer opportunities for investment. If Turkey becomes part of the European Union, there may not be this massive move to Europe, especially if Turkey's economy picks up through robust foreign investment.”
Professor Sayari says Turkey's economic success is rarely reported in the European headlines. After nearly collapsing in 2002, the Turkish economy has rebounded. Economic output surged nearly 10 percent for the last three years. while annual inflation, now about 8 percent, is the lowest in more than three decades.
Most scholars say that in the end, no matter how far Ankara goes in fulfilling EU criteria, any country in the union could veto Turkey's membership -- giving them the power to keep the train going, or stop it dead in its tracks.