The Turkish press certainly wasn't going to let this one go by. The comment made by European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger, a German, made almost all of the front pages of the country's newspapers. "I would like to bet that one day in the next decade a German chancellor and his or her counterpart in Paris will have to crawl to Ankara on their knees to beg the Turks, 'Friends, come to us'," he reportedly said during a speech at the Brussels office of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on Monday.
Such a gesture of humility appeals to the Turks, who feel they have been kept at arm's length for years when it comes to joining the European Union. But while Oettinger is being praised for his prediction in Turkey, his comments, reported by the German tabloid Bild, have dismayed his fellow Europeans.
Turkish EU Affairs Minister Egemin Bagis said that he is not sure whether the Europeans will one day "come grovelling or sink to their knees" to ask Turkey to join the EU, the Turkish media reported on Thursday. "But if there's one thing I know for sure," he added, "it's that they will certainly give in."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is less likely to be impressed with the statements of Oettinger, a member of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Relations with Ankara have been strained ahead of a planned two-day visit to Turkey starting Sunday, and his words won't make things easier for her to justify foot-draggin when it comes to strengthening Turkey ties to the EU.
The Turks will probably confront Merkel with Oettinger's statement to increase pressure on Germany. Bagis said Thursday that he hoped it would have an effect on the EU's policy. Negotiations for the country's accession to the 27-member bloc have been stalled for more than two years. Since beginning efforts toward joining in 2005, Turkey has fulfilled just one of the 34 chapters of the acquis communautaire required for entry, which focused on science and research.
France Urges New Chapter
But some movement has recently been seen elsewhere. France -- which, along with Germany, hindered the Turkish accession process under former President Nicolas Sarkozy -- signaled two weeks ago that it could lift the blockade. In a gesture of goodwill, the new government under Socialist President François Hollande is ready to open another chapter of the process. Turkish EU Affairs Minister Bagis traveled to Paris on Thursday to meet with Bernard Cazeneuve, his French counterpart, to discuss the next steps.
The attempt at reconciliation came after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned during a visit to Prague in early February -- just as he had in the fall of 2012 in Berlin -- that his patience was wearing thin with the EU. "After 50 years at the gates of the EU, the European community should now finally decide," he said. As an alternative, the prime minister suggested that his country might also join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes developing Asian nations, in addition to Russia and China. "The economic powers of the world are shifting from west to east, and Turkey is one of these growth economies," Erdogan said.
This scenario may have motivated Oettinger's remark, and it is one that Merkel will grapple with when she heads to Ankara for political talks on Monday after visiting German troops stationed along Turkey's border with Syria. That doesn't mean that Turkish officials expect an about-face from the chancellor, particularly because it's an election year. "But we hope that France coordinated with the Germans," says a source within the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In Ankara's view, the litmus test for Berlin's attitude toward the country is the question of how EU visas for Turkish citizens are handled. "It is shameful the way Turkey, as an accession candidate, is treated by the EU on the visa question," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu recently complained. "It's incomprehensible for our people."
For years, Turkey has called for visa restrictions to be eased for its citizens traveling to countries within the EU's Schengen Zone. During her visits to Turkey, Merkel has also repeatedly been told that even Turkish businesspeople who want to invest in Germany have trouble getting a visa. But little has been done to change this.
Now, Ankara has received a proposal from the European Commission urging Turkey to sign an accord requiring it to take back illegal immigrants that cross its borders into Greece. In exchange, talks about getting rid of the EU visa requirement for Turks would be resumed.
The Turkish government has delayed signing because it wants a guarantee that a gradual lifting of the visa requirement is actually planned. After German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich categorically rejected lifting the visa requirement for Germany during a visit to Turkey 10 days ago, the Turks are anxiously awaiting anything Merkel might have to say on the matter.
There is yet another issue that will be on officials' minds in Ankara, where they will have certainly registered that the debate over dual citizenship has once again flared up in Germany, which is home to a large Turkish diaspora of some 3 million. In an open letter to both Erdogan and Merkel, the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD) called for current barriers to dual citizenship to be lifted. It's a request that is likely to be well-received by the Turkish prime minister.