Turkey has a new-old friend in Europe: the British government. Prime Minister David Cameron touted himself as the "strongest possible advocate" of Turkey's bid to join the European Union when he visited Ankara on July 27.
It was an easy call for Cameron, bent on quickening the U.K.'s recession-hit economy by tapping Turkey, a market of 73 million consumers with gross domestic product growth of 11.7 percent in the first quarter. The aspiration is to double U.K. trade with Turkey, to $18 billion annually, by 2015. Cameron's pro-Turkish pronouncements also fit in with a long-standing U.K. policy of promoting an ever-wider EU, so the bloc evolves into a loosely organized free-trade zone that isn't dominated by Germany, France, or the unelected mandarins of Brussels.
The trouble is that Turkey's quest to join the world's largest commercial bloc has gone virtually nowhere since entry negotiations began in 2005. For a while, that was because of opposition in Europe, led by Cyprus, Turkey's Greek-speaking rival in the Mediterranean. The mood soured further when Angela Merkel became German chancellor and Nicolas Sarkozy was elected French president. Both want Turkey to model its economy on Europe's and develop ever-closer ties with the EU. That doesn't mean they want the predominantly Muslim nation to become a member. The French and Germans think of the Turks, whose per capita GDP is less than half the EU level, as too "other" to fit comfortably into the club. Because of Turkey's large population, it would also play a powerful role in the European Parliament and demand its share of EU resources.
Just after Cameron left, Germany's Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, showed up in the Turkish capital with a contrary opinion: Turkey isn't "capable of joining" now, and the 27-nation EU isn't ready to let it in, he told the German newspaper Bild.
The Turks are responding to the heightened debate. Under Islamist-leaning Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country, known as the "sick man of Europe" in the 19th century, is rapidly gaining. After a decade of strong economic growth, Turkey is reemerging as a regional power, forging links to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, and central Asia. Turkey has become a Middle East power broker, too, and is even threatening to break a decades-old alliance with Israel over the Israeli attack on the Turkish-backed Gaza aid flotilla in late May.
EU membership is no longer Turkey's No. 1 priority. It ignored the tradition of would-be members falling in line with EU foreign policy when it voted against sanctions on Iran's nuclear program in the U.N. Security Council in June. It did an end run around Western governments and teamed with Brazil, another ascending economy, to engineer a uranium swap for Iran, in which Iran would ship much of its enriched uranium to those countries for further processing. As for Britain, Erdogan eyes a "golden age" for British-Turkish relations—without Brussels as the middleman.
The Bottom Line: British Prime Minister David Cameron has called on the EU to let Turkey in. The French and Germans beg to differ.