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Turkey's EU Membership Hopes Dim With New French President

The election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France has dealt a further blow to Turkey's hopes of becoming the European Union's first predominantly Muslim member. Mr. Sarkozy has repeatedly said Turkey does not belong in Europe. Amberin Zaman spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul about the impact of Mr. Sarkozy's presidency and files this background report.

Abdullah Gul is an ardent supporter of Turkey's membership in the European Union. Many observers say the foreign minister was the driving force behind a raft of democratic reforms that persuaded the European Union to open long-delayed membership talks with Turkey in 2004.

Those talks have now run into trouble. The most immediate problem stems from differences between Turkey and the EU government over the status of the divided Mediterranean island, Cyprus.

But the deeper problem is growing hostility among Europeans to the prospect of Turkish membership.

Nicolas Sarkozy, who was elected president of France, earlier this month, has repeatedly said Turkey does not belong in Europe. He and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have called for a "privileged partnership" with the Ankara government, instead.

Adding to this perception is Mr. Sarkozy's tough language and crackdowns on immigration while he was French interior minister.

During the 2005 riots in the Muslim-dominated suburban housing projects around Paris, Mr. Sarkozy shocked some by calling the rioters "louts" and "scum."

Foreign Minister Gul says Turkey will never accept "second-class status". He adds, over time, Mr. Sarkozy will come to appreciate Turkey's value.

"First, definitely I congratulate him [Sarkozy]," he said. "He's the president of France. I am sure he will be aware more [sic] of the [Turkey] file and he will make a better assessment about Turkey, when the time passes."

Cengiz Aktar is an Istanbul-based academic specializing in European affairs. He is far more pessimistic, saying Turkey hopes of joining the EU have never looked slimmer.

"Turkey's membership process is literally wounded and it will take time, energy and much imagination to move it forward again," he said. "It depends very much on the EU side."

"Again, I'm afraid and, on the other hand, I don't see how the new EU engine - Merkel and Sarkozy engine - will manage to move this forward, because they are not happy with the prospect of Turkey becoming an EU member and they will do their utmost to block this, which they are doing already so," he added.

Adding to Turkey's difficulties is the fact some countries - including France - have said they will put Turkey's membership to a popular referendum, even after the negotiating process comes to an end.

Gul acknowledges Turkey will need to work hard to win over European public opinion. He adds his country understands European fears about admitting a predominantly Muslim nation of 72 milllion and is, therefore, willing to be patient.

"First of all, we don't want to be a burden on EU We want to make the cake bigger and then we will get the share," said Gul. "Otherwise, the European people, the people in the member countries, they definitely will not like to see us there."

Many Turks do not believe their country will ever join the European Union. During a wave of anti-government protests that have swept the country in recent weeks, a recurrent slogan was "No to America, No to the EU."

Professor Aktar says the spread of anti-EU sentiment has allowed the Turkish military to flex its muscles again - never quite so blatantly as on April 27, when it threatened to intervene on the grounds that Turkey's rigidly secular system was under threat.

"I am afraid the ultimatum of the military on the 27th of April in the evening, during the night, is the clearest possible example of the waning disappearing European dynamics in this country," he said.

Seemingly undeterred by such setbacks, Foreign Minister Gul insists EU membership remains Turkey's best option for maturing into a Western-style democracy. That is why his ruling Justice and Development Party will campaign on a pro-European platform, in advance of the July 22 parliament elections.