Against a background of unfolding revolutions in the Arab world, speakers at a conference in Istanbul last weekend said Turkey could provide a democratic model for Islamic countries to follow. But ironically, EU-Turkey relations have reached "stagnation point," they said.
Štefan Füle, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said opinion polls were indicating that Turkey is seen as a role model for the region and as living proof that Islam and democracy are not incompatible.
Füle was addressing a conference in Istanbul organised by European Movement International (EMI) and the Third Sector Foundation of Turkey. The meeting was attended by numerous NGOs from Turkey and the Western Balkan countries.
Füle stressed that the EU had "no B Plan" for Turkey and there was no alternative to full EU membership on the negotiating table.
"The rules of the game are quite clear. We should stick with them and limit the number of negotiation chapters to be opened," he said (see 'Background').
Regarding the divided island of Cyprus, which remains the biggest stumbling block on the road to Turkey's EU accession, Füle said efforts to find a solution were still ongoing.
Egemen Ba???, Turkish State Minister for European Affairs, appeared to advise Cyprus, a EU member country which Turkey does not recognise, to consider the consequences of continuing to block Ankara's accession bid.
"I suggest Cypriot Greeks [should] think of what we'll do if Turkey doesn't enter the EU, rather than what happens if Turkey becomes an EU member," he said.
Ba??? said his country had pursued its dream of joining the European Union for 60 years, and in all that time had never lost hope. He recognised that there were plenty of fears, prejudices and reservations in the EU regarding Turkey's accession, and stressed the importance of civil society in helping to improve perceptions.
Addressing the fact that Turkish citizens still need a visa to visit the EU's borderless Schengen area, Ba??? said that Turkey was "fed up" with empty words and that the time had come to lift the visa barrier and make Turkish citizens feel more European.
Turks have no intention of migrating to Europe anymore, Ba??? declared. He claimed that Turks only want to go to Europe on holiday, for family visits, to study or to receive professional training. If the visa issue were resolved once and for all, civil society in Turkey would develop more effectively, he argued.
However, others pointed out that Turkey may have complicated its case by establishing a visa-free regime with countries such as Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia.
A Turkish NGO presented research, co-sponsored by the European Citizen Action Service, according to which such treatment is fuelling negative perceptions of the EU among the Turkish pubic.
Pat Cox, president of European Movement International, a federalist organisation, said the organisation was committed to Turkey's EU accession. In his eyes, the best way to avoid controversy about "double standards" was to extend to Turkey the visa liberalisation that already exists with all the other candidate and potential candidate countries, which are mainly situated in the Balkans.
Cox promised that the EMI would raise the visa issue with the authorities, the media and other stakeholders. He also insisted that Turkey was an "anchor of stability" in the region and that the EU was in need of such a partner there, "especially following the Jasmine Revolution".
(EURACTIV Turkey contributed to this article.)