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EU Meeting Comes at Critical Time for Turkey's Membership Bid

EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton delivers a speech at the European Parliament 16 June 2010

EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton delivers a speech at the European Parliament 16 June 2010

The first visit to Turkey by European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton begins Tuesday. As the nation's bid to join the bloc is on the verge of collapse in the face of strong opposition by some EU members, some question whether Turkey is turning its back on Europe.

The Turkish EU meeting comes at a critical time for Turkey's membership bid. This month Turkey and the EU will discuss the 13th chapter of Turkey's EU accession package.

Bid in crisis

There are 35 chapters that Turkey needs to fulfill to attain EU membership. Twelve chapters have been opened so far, while eight chapters remain totally blocked due to Ankara's failure to open its borders to EU member Greek Cyprus.

Analysts speculate that the 13th chapter could be well be the last to open.

Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University, an expert on EU relations, says Turkey's bid is in crisis.

"It's a dying bid. It's in a dire state. I don't think Europeans realize what they are doing, they are concerned with their own problems be it the economic crisis and they are slowly losing Turkey," Aktar said.

Comparable difference

Turkey and Croatia both launched their bid for EU membership on the same day in 2005. But Croatia opened all its chapters and is expected to have completed all its membership requirements by as early as the end of this year.

The contrast is not lost on the Turkish people, says political columnist Semih Idiz.

"Seven out of 10 question whether the European Union is sincere vis-à-vis Turkey," Idiz said. "I think the average Turk feels that there is lot of bad faith on the part of Europe towards Turkey . And if the government is pursing the negotiations, it's only doing it for lack of an option to that."

As a result, Ankara may have switched gears. The government has embarked on an ambitious program of rapidly improving its relations with its Eastern and Middle Eastern neighbors, including Syria and Iran, signing numerous visa free travel and free trade agreements.

Motivation questioned

And, last month Turkey voted against new UN sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear energy program. This has led to questions over the direction Turkey is heading.

Last month at a meeting in Europe, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said if such a re-orientation is occurring, Europe is to blame.

"If there is anything to the notion that Turkey is moving eastward, it is my view in no small part because it was pushed and pushed by some in Europe, refusing to give Turkey the kind of organic link to the West that turkey sought," Gates said.

Ankara denies that it is turning its back on the West, and Europe in particular. The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reiterated during his visit last week in London that Turkey's EU bid is his number one priority.

Will Turkey win bid?

Davutoglu says Turkey's Middle Eastern diplomacy complements its EU bid.

"What we are trying to achieve in the Middle East, is to establish an order based on rule of law, democracy, human rights, economic independency, co-cultural existence," Davutoglu explained. "These are common values of the European Union."

But observers warn the EU commissioners attending Tuesday's meeting that they can expect to hear the growing frustrations of the Turkish government. Cengiz Aktar says Brussels has to act quickly.

"If they really want to support Turkey's EU membership they should be much more straightforward," Aktar said. "Not only will Turkey become an EU member, but it will become a member on such and such date. This sort of communications is needed now."

But with many EU members buckling under huge budget deficits,, observers warn there is little excitement or enthusiasm for a relatively poor country of 70 million people joining its ranks For now, at least, the charade of Turkey's bid -- which many in the country now call it -- may well continue, but the question many are asking is for how long?