French minister plays down fears over Turkey shift

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Mounting fears that Turkey is sliding away from the West are "baseless," a French minister said Friday, arguing closer ties with the East are a natural outcome of the country's regional standing.

Pierre Lellouche, France's minister for European affairs, made the remarks at an Istanbul think-tank after Turkey's "no" vote to fresh UN sanctions against Iran and a simmering crisis with Israel sparked concerns that NATO's only mainly Muslim member is drifting away from the West.

"I hear here and there that this would be for us, Westerners, a zero-sum game: Turkey would be lost for Europe and NATO as it is asserting itself in the East. This outdated way of thinking reminds me of the Cold War and, in my opinion, is baseless," he said in a speech at the Bosphorus Institute.

"No one has lost Turkey. It is only defending its national interests.

"Being as active in the East as it has been over the years in the West, the Turkey of the 21st century is rediscovering its indispensable role as a bridge between two worlds," he said.

The country's "remarkably active diplomacy" in the Middle East reflects its standing as an "emerging power," he said.

Turkey voted against new sanctions against Iran, adopted at the UN Security Council Wednesday, arguing that Tehran should be given a chance to implement a nuclear fuel swap deal, brokered by Turkey and Brazil last month.

Its "no" vote came atop a crisis with Israel over the May 31 raid on Gaza-bound aid ships, which claimed the lives of nine Turks and prompted fiery anti-Israeli tirades by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accompanied with advocacy of the radical Palestinian group Hamas.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday the European Union's refusal to offer Turkey a swift accession process was one of the factors behind Ankara's perceived foreign policy shift.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he agreed with Gates, urging the EU to speed up Turkey's accession talks, in remarks to a German daily.

Erdogan, whose ruling party is the moderate offshoot of a banned Islamist movement, dismissed the charges Thursday as "dirty propaganda," insisting that Turkey was committed to its links in both East and West.

Ankara however has often expressed bitterness over the slow pace of its EU membership talks and blamed notably France for hampering the process.

France, together with Germany, is opposed to Turkey's accession, arguing that it does not belong to Europe and should be given a special status lesser than membership.

© 2010 AFP

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