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Turkey's Relationship With Europe Chilly

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

When President Obama included Turkey in his first European trip, he said he was sending a message. Many Turks welcomed the president's effort to remind the world of Turkey's longstanding ties to Europe. But if U.S.-Turkish relations are warming, Europe itself still seems to be giving Turkey the cold shoulder.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul.

PETER KENYON: To be fair to the diversity of opinion here, not everyone was delighted with President Obama's visit.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENYON: Young, anti-globalization and anti-war protestors marched down Istanbul's historic pedestrian boulevard, criticizing what they called an imperialist U.S. foreign policy. But for the most part, Turks and their leaders were thrilled by Mr. Obama's visit to the famous Blue Mosque, and by the distinction he drew between the Muslim world in general, and Turkey's secular democratizing government in particular, and Islamist terrorist groups and their supporters.

But the president's determined efforts to place Turkey firmly in the European community were undermined by fresh evidence that key European leaders have no intention of returning Turkey's embrace.

When Mr. Obama threw his weight behind Turkish membership in the European Union, France immediately said no. A special but still outsider status was the best Turkey should hope for. And at the NATO summit, European members lined up behind a Danish prime minister to be the new secretary general, ignoring Turkey's protests that Danish newspaper cartoons ridiculing the prophet Muhammad made him a less-than-ideal candidate as NATO expands its presence in Muslim countries.

Hugh Pope, Turkey project director at the International Crisis Group, says Ankara embarked on significant reforms as part of its EU membership drive, but those reforms have stalled in recent years in the face of continued European indifference.

Mr. HUGE POPE (Turkey Project Director, International Crisis Group): Unfortunately, from the European Union side, there's been very little outreach to Turkey. And this is one thing that I certainly hope will be a result of Obama's trip, is an example to the European Union as to how reaching out and treating Turkey with respect and with some understanding of its role in the Middle East can do a lot to improve what the European Union and the United States are trying to achieve in the Middle East, which is a more stable and prosperous and open-minded system.

KENYON: It's been well over a half-century since Turkey began the effort to join together with Europe, so the average Turk is well-versed in the varieties of diplomatic disappointment that can be dished out. They know that European leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France are probably using their opposition to Turkey's membership to neutralize conservative, anti-immigration parties at home.

But Turks such as Najati Omaz(ph), who says he's been selling chestnuts on the streets of Istanbul for 20 years, say whatever the reason, enough is enough.

Mr. NAJATI OMAZ (Market Vendor): (Through translator) If I were the leader of Turkey today, right now, I would not take a single step toward joining the EU. We don't need the EU. Turkey has everything.

KENYON: This may not be a majority view in Turkey - certainly the country's secular block remains as committed as ever - but frustration is growing. And analysts say leaders across the Middle East are watching Turkey's EU struggles closely and asking themselves a question: If a secular, democratic, 57-year-old NATO member can't win Europe's confidence, what chance does any other Muslim country have?

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.