- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2011

ISTANBUL | Turkey will press ahead with its bid to join the European Union despite frustrations with delays it sees in part as a byproduct of anti-Muslim prejudice, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief adviser told The Washington Times.

“[The EU has] laid out certain principles, and we have looked at those principles and on the basis of those principles, we said, ‘All right, we want to become part of your club,’” the adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, said in an interview. “But now in the middle of the soccer game, as the prime minister says in his favorite metaphor, ‘You’re changing the penalty rules.’”

Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) made joining the EU a top priority after it swept to power in 2002 and opened accession talks in December 2004, but the effort stalled even as Turkey implemented democratic reforms and saw unprecedented economic growth.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have backed Turkey’s bid. But inside Europe, the notion of an increasingly religious Muslim nation joining a club of secular countries with Christian roots has ignited fierce debates about European identity at a time when many EU member states are struggling to integrate growing Muslim minorities. Culturalist opponents of Ankara’s bid note that if demographic trends persist, Turkey would soon overtake Germany as the most populous EU member.

“It will not be end of the world for us if we are not accepted into the EU, but if Europe becomes an intolerant continent, it will be Europe that will lose in the end,” Mr. Kalin said. “All great powers in history have lost their greatness when they turned intolerant.”

EU accession requires the 27-member body’s unanimous approval, which gives veto power to small nations such as Cyprus. Europe’s largest states, meanwhile, are split. The leaders of Britain, Italy and Spain all support Turkey’s entry. But other power brokers, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have proposed a “privileged partnership” instead.

Mr. Kalin said Ankara flatly rejects the idea and that eventually the EU will have to opt “either for full membership or full rejection — there is no in between.”

He argued that “if you’re talking about integrating into the European society, economy, politics even in a general sense or foreign policy, we’re already there,” pointing to Turkey’s membership in a range of European institutions as well as trade with Europe that exceeds half of Turkey’s total.

Turkey’s bid also has been complicated by a foreign policy that recently has clashed with the West in certain areas.

Last year, Turkey voted against a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, advocating continued engagement with Tehran. It also has sought greater cooperation with Syria in a number of areas, including defense.

Mr. Kalin said critics of Turkey “are cherry picking — Iran, Syria, a few other examples — and saying, ‘Oh, you see, they are interested in improving their relations only with Muslim countries and particularly with the bad guys of the Middle East.’”

“If you look at the full picture, we are making that effort with everyone,” he said, noting Turkey’s rapprochement with historical nemesis Greece, as well as improving ties with Russia and countries in the Balkans.

He acknowledged, though, that Turkey’s longtime alliance with Israel remains in tatters nearly eight months after nine Turkish activists were killed in a clash with Israeli commandos aboard a Turkish-flagged ship seeking to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In an interview, Knesset member Avi Dichter — former head of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service — echoed a now-common Israeli line that the Jewish state had been made to “pay the price” for the EU’s rejection of Turkey.

“I think that Turkey understood that Europe simply doesn’t want them as part of the EU,” Mr. Dichter said. “And instead of looking West, they started to look East. In order to satisfy the East, [they turned against] Israel because there is a consensus in the whole Muslim world that if you attack Israel, it’s OK.”

But Mr. Kalin rejected such arguments and said in general that he sees no tension between Turkey’s quest for EU membership — not to mention its place in NATO — and friendship with Iran and Syria.

“We no longer think in terms of oppositional identities, where we define ourselves as, say, European and therefore we say we cannot have any relationship now with the Middle East because we are a European country — or vice versa,” Mr. Kalin said. “It’s not choosing one bloc or one region at the expense of another because these categories really belong to the Cold War period.”

• Ben Birnbaum can be reached at 138247@example.com.

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