Peter Spiegel Turkey tries to restart EU membership efforts

Fresh off Turkey’s recent national referendum approving constitutional reforms officials hope will move the country closer to EU membership, Ankara’s chief EU negotiator, Egemaen Bagis, was making the rounds in Brussels this week in an attempt to restart the stalled effort.

But for a process already saddled with countless hurdles – particularly the ongoing dispute with EU member Cyprus, which has put a hold on moving forward on several issues – Mr Bagis said he is finding himself confronted with a new challenge: the rise of nationalist parties in several European elections.

“They say: Well, we have this upcoming election where we have to really get the right-wing vote, so it’s not easy to do more on Turkey right now,” Mr Bagis said of his meetings with some European officials. “They have seen it pays to attack Turkey. They’re exploiting Turkey’s long-term membership aspirations for short-term political gain.”

Mr Bagis, who is also minister of EU affairs in the government of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, would not say which countries have made such protestations, but insisted that while some have only implied the connection, others have been more explicit.

“Some hint it, some actually say it,” he told a small group of journalists in Brussels. “Some refrain from saying it, but you can read it in their eyes.”

Mr Bagis said he believes such objections are only temporary, arguing that anti-Turkish sentiment – like anti-immigrant feelings – are likely to subside once the current economic crisis ebbs.

Besides, he argued, with a young population and fast-growing Turkish economy, why shouldn’t an aging and recession-gripped Europe now embrace Turkish membership? “My new motto is: Hold on tight, Europe, Turkey is coming to the rescue.”