Turkish President Abdullah Gül and France's State Secretary for Europe Pierre Lellouche spoke to EurActiv at an Istanbul conference, which appeared to be a dress rehearsal ahead of a 'make or break' visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to Turkey later this year.
Turkey will not accept any framework for its relations with the EU other than full membership, Gül told EurActiv in an exclusive interview.
Given Sarkozy's opposition to Turkey's EU membership, Gül was asked whether another format which would preserve Ankara's independent foreign policy may not be a better option.
Gül argued that his country indeed had special relations with its neighbours and the region – but added that Spain or the UK had exactly the same kind of relationship with Latin American countries or the Commonwealth respectively.
"You don't ask Britain or Spain to limit their relations because of EU policy, do you?" he asked.
The Turkish head of state also rejected perceptions in Western Europe that millions of Turks would settle there once restrictions are lifted.
"Look, we are not the Turkey from ten or twenty years ago. Turkey is becoming attractive. French and Germans are coming to Turkey. Many ex-pats are coming to settle here. They are saying that Turkey is attractive. I don't need to say it myself," Gül said.
The Turkish president touched upon the same issues in his speech at the conference, organised by the Institut du Bosphore, a Franco-Turkish think-tank supported by TÜSİAD, the leading Turkish business association. French newspaper Les Echos and EurActiv Turkey were media partners at the event.
Gül said Turkey was pursuing its "natural role" in the region, which other countries should not confuse with changing values and a lack of commitment to Europe. He implicitly criticised Sarkozy's lack of respect for the agreed EU perspective of the country.
Against 'double standards'
Speaking before the president, Egemen Bağış, Turkey's European affairs minister and chief EU negotiator, took a similar line, pointing out that the unresolved Cyprus issue had not prevented Greece and the Republic of Cyprus from joining – and neither should it hinder Turkey.
The two keynote speakers, President Gül and French Europe Secretary Lellouche, agreed to disagree on the potential outcome of Turkey's EU negotiations, which opened in 2005 and saw France block talks on several negotiating chapters (see EurActiv LinksDossier on EU-Turkey relations).
"Turkey has its project, which is membership, and we have another one, which is partnership," said Lellouche, speaking to EurActiv.
In his speech, he remained vague as to the kind of relationship Turkey could have with the Union.
"France intends to build, with its partners, a Europe that would be a large space of solidarity, stability and security that would encompass the 27-member Union, enlarged tomorrow with the Balkans, with Turkey, Russia and Ukraine on its side," he stated.
However, a degree of softening in the French stance since the 2007 presidential elections was noted by participants. Now, the keyword no longer appears to be "privileged partnership" but rather a more substantial "strategic partnership," albeit not supported by Turkey.
According to diplomats, Sarkozy was advised to "tone down his rhetoric" in preparation for his visit to Turkey later this year. Paris found that following statements made by Sarkozy which were seen as offensive in Turkey, French companies missed out on a number of large projects. For example, Turkey's first nuclear plant will be build by Russia's RosAtom – not French company Areva.
Kemal Derviş, former Turkish economy minister and author of Turkey's successful three-year economic recovery programme, which was launched in 2001, said that Turkey and Europe should "invent their future together".
In his speech, Pierre Lellouche, France's state secretary for European affairs, praised Turkey's potential, arguing that taking on board the acquis communautaire was good for Turkey in any scenario for a future relationship with the Union.
Lellouche is known for having supported Turkey's EU accession before becoming France's EU affairs secretary and accepting Sarkozy's views.
In what could be seen as a possible opening, he quoted from the 1938 'political will' of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey: "No recipes are valid forever."
Questioned further by moderator Kemal Derviş, Lellouche admitted that "negotiations can be a dynamic process". In an exclusive interview with EurActiv, the state secretary stressed that he wrote his speech himself.
Henri de Castries, president of insurance group AXA and co-president of the Institut du Bosphore, stressed that the world is changing fast and called for work on areas of common ground as opposed to focusing on the differences.
Dorothée Schmid of Paris-based think-tank IFRI (Institut français des relations internationales) summarised a study on French perceptions, commissioned by Istanbul think-tank EDAM. It shows that French elites are increasingly open to Turkey's attractiveness and arguments.
A panel discussion concluded that French corporate circles are more reluctant than their Turkish and German counterparts to speak up and contradict government policy.
The president of communication agency Euro RSCG, Stéphane Fouks (who is also an informal advisor to IMF Director-General Dominique Strauss Kahn and a possible socialist presidential contender in 2012) made a controversial statement. He said he believed that a referendum in France on Turkey's EU accession might be won, despite the current negative opinion polls.
This triggered adverse reactions by French MPs, both left and right of centre, who are still smarting from the failed referendum on the EU constitution in 2005.
- November 2010: France assumes G20 presidency. President Nicolas Sarkozy expected to visit Turkey beforehand.
- Spring 2012: French presidential elections. Turkish EU candidacy expected to be subject of controversy.