Photo by Lynsey Addario for The New York Times
By CRAIG S. SMITH
Copyright The New York Times
Published: June 11, 2005
IZMIT, Turkey, June 10 - Zeynel Erdem, a leading Turkish businessman, came to Izmit, a seaside industrial town, to give 400 of his prominent peers a message.
"Don't count on the European Union," he told the crowd after a chicken dinner in a hotel ballroom here. "Look to the U.S.; they're our real friends."
That view is spreading in Turkey, a sprawling land of 70 million people who have yearned for decades to become a part of Europe. With the European Union in political disarray after the French and Dutch rejected a European constitution, and with opposition to Turkish membership gaining ground in Europe, many Turks are beginning to wonder whether their European dreams are worth the effort. They are reassessing instead their relationship with the United States, a relationship that has suffered since the start of the Iraq war.
Turkey's stated goal is still to join the European Union, but the shift in sentiment signals a deepening ambivalence toward the vaunted vision of shared sovereignty.
Just as French and Dutch voters expressed dismay at the increasing European-level control over their lives and worried aloud about immigrants diluting their nations, many Turks are now questioning whether their country should see its future as part of Europe.
Of course, few Turks have bought into the American program for reshaping the Middle East, and relations with the United States lost their pre-eminence during the Iraq war, which Turkey opposed. Turkey's focus shifted to Europe.
But that is beginning to change. Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan's fence-mending trip to Washington this week played well here. He even won some support from Washington in ending the economic and political isolation of Turkish Cypriots.
In an interview at The New York Times on Friday, Mr. Erdogan demurred on the question of a shift away from Europe. "The E.U. and the U.S. are not mutually exclusive for Turkey," he said.
European Union leaders agreed in December to begin membership negotiations with Turkey on Oct. 3, and the country has done a great deal to make that happen. It has put a new penal code into effect and agreed to sign a protocol extending its customs union to all the newest members, including the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus, which Turkey does not recognize.
Yet despite all that, the prospects for Turkey's membership look gloomier than ever. Turkey will have a larger population than any member country by the time it completes its membership process - a projected 80 million - and will probably still be far poorer. More troubling to many Europeans is that Turkish membership would create a powerful Muslim presence and push Europe's eastern borders out to Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Some European politicians have started talking openly about offering a "privileged partnership" instead of full membership, something roundly rejected here. The idea, first suggested publicly three years ago by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has most recently been taken up by German's Christian Democrats, whose leader, Angela Merkel, is expected to run against Chancellor Gerhard Schroder in September. Ms. Merkel's party has stated unequivocally that it will try to block Turkey's membership if it comes to power.
Hanging in the background is the pledge last year by President Jacques Chirac of France to submit Turkish membership to a national referendum. After last month's rejection of the constitution, few believe such a referendum would pass.
Many Turks say they are getting fed up with meeting Europe's manifold demands without some guarantee that they will become a part of Europe in the end.
"Europe is playing a dangerous game with Turkey," said Can Paker, chairman of the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. "It's giving a stronger hand and more motivation to people who want the status quo to prevail."
It is also fueling Turkish nationalist sentiment, which was stirred last month when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey must give the Kurdish separatist Abdullah Ocalan a new trial.
Some Turks are beginning to imagine a day when Turkey does not need Europe at all, particularly because it gets so much support from the United States.
Turkey's economic output surged nearly 10 percent last year and is expected to grow as much as 6 percent this year. The current 10 percent inflation rate is the lowest in more than 30 years. Foreign investment from the West, slow because of Turkey's chronic corruption, has picked up.
Pekin Baran, a Turkish shipping tycoon, believes that negotiations with Europe will start in October, as planned, but that "it will be a very, very nasty ride." Under the negotiating rules laid out in December, all 25 members have to agree on every point. That gives Cyprus or any other country hostile to Turkish membership effective veto power.
"The pity is that we are convinced that Turkey could have contributed to the future of Europe much more than she could reasonably have expected to get in exchange," said Mr. Baran, from his office overlooking the glittering Bosporus, which separates Europe from Asia, where the bulk of Turkey lies. He nonetheless maintains that Turkey should press ahead for full membership, in part because the negotiation process itself is valuable in driving political and economic changes.
While there is still strong support for membership, polls have recorded a decline in national enthusiasm to 63 percent before the French referendum in May from more than 70 percent a year ago.
Hansjorg Kretschmer, the European Union's point man in Turkey, warns that without better understanding on both sides, Turkish attitudes could turn quickly.
"Strong support based on ignorance is not good because it can collapse very quickly," he said before meeting Tuesday with representatives of nongovernmental organizations in Trabzon, on the Black Sea. "The key element is that Turkey does its homework and completes the necessary political and other reforms. No one will say no to a Turkey which has become a liberal democracy in the European understanding."
Prime Minister Erdogan, in his Times interview on Friday, said he believed Turks' enthusiasm for membership in the European Union would remain high.
"If you look at the polls, support for the E.U. may have gone down just a little bit, but it is still at 60 percent," he said. "In fact, in the last couple of weeks the situation in France and the Netherlands may have had a negative effect that brought down the numbers, but when the time arrives to begin the negotiations in the fall, I think that these numbers will start climbing up again in support of membership."
Saban Disli, deputy chairman for foreign affairs in the ruling Justice and Development Party, said Europe should not try to project a decision of 10 years from now by looking at Turkey today. "Who knows?" he said, "Maybe in 10 years' time, it will be Turkey who holds a referendum to see if Turks still want to become a part of the E.U."