- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 29, 2010

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle appeared on Wednesday to offer support for Turkey’s stalling bid to join the European Union, saying in Istanbul that the country’s “direction is toward] Europe.”

Mr. Westerwelle’s remark came a day after British Prime Minister David Cameron said in the Turkish capital of Ankara that he was ready to “fight for” Turkey’s place in the EU. Together, the European leaders’ comments breathed new life into the long-simmering debate over whether to admit the Muslim nation of nearly 78 million into the EU.

Turkey’s accession to the EU, the chances of which have waned recently, has been a top priority for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) ever since he swept to power in the 2002 elections.

But with the bid stalled for years, Mr. Erdogan and other top Turkish officials recently have set off alarm bells in the West — particularly among the country’s NATO partners — with an eastward foreign-policy lurch, in which Ankara has appeared to trade its long-standing alliance with Israel for warmer relations with Middle Eastern neighbors such as Syria and Iran.

Last month, Turkey was one of only two U.N. Security Council members to vote against a new round of sanctions on Iran for its illicit nuclear activities. And in April, it held a military drill with Syria.

Relations with Israel, meanwhile, remain at a breaking point nearly two months after nine Turkish nationals were killed by Israeli commandos in a melee aboard a flotilla trying to break the Jewish state’s blockade of Gaza. The Mavi Marmara, the ship on which the bloodshed occurred, was sponsored by an AKP-linked Islamist nongovernmental group.

While Mr. Erdogan initially was thought to have gained political capital at home by stoking public wrath over the incident, there are growing indications that he may have overplayed his hand for some Turks.

“There is a sense among some elements of the population that AKP has overreached on foreign policy,” said Turkey expert Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“I am not talking about the kind of die-hard nationalist secularists, but that important ‘middle’ or ‘center’ who aren’t Islamists or militant nationalist secularists,” Mr. Cook said. “These people voted for AKP in 2002 because of Turkey’s economic free fall and again in 2007 because of Turkey’s economic progress. They liked the EU reforms of 2003 and 2004.

“They aren’t all that unhappy with the general thrust of Turkish foreign policy, but they are starting to ask questions about AKP’s foreign-policy activism.”

Turkey’s double-digit unemployment picture, Mr. Cook added, also is hurting AKP’s standing despite robust economic growth.

A Turkish poll released Wednesday appeared to signal trouble for Mr. Erdogan, showing that if the country’s scheduled 2011 elections were held today, his Islamist-rooted party would take in only 31.1 percent, less than the secular-nationalist Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) 33.5 percent.

CHP has seen a revival under the new leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who took charge of the party in May.

“He’s electrified CHP’s center-left constituency, but that is not enough for victory,” said Nuh Yilmaz, Washington director of the SETA Foundation, an AKP-sympathetic Turkish think tank. “He does have a chance if he manages to reach out to Turkey’s conservatives on issues of religious freedom, democratic reforms and civilian control of the military.”

Mr. Cook cautioned that Erdogan-wary Westerners should not invest too much in polls nearly a year before notoriously late-breaking Turkish elections, even if the numbers pan out.

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