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A Third Way for Turkey?

Angela Merkel, head of Germany's opposition Christian Democrats, heads to Turkey this week for talks about Ankara's desire to join the EU. Merkel opposes full membership, but wants to offer Turkey a special partnership.

On her two-day trip starting on Monday, the leader of Germany's conservatives will meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minster Abdullah Gül in attempt to see first hand how the country's efforts to join the European Union are coming along.

But with the Christian Democrats (CDU) having already said they are officially against Turkish EU membership, it's hard to imagine Merkel new proposals will receive much of a warm welcome in Ankara. Her initiative to offer Turkey some sort of special partnership with Brussels has already been rejected by Turkish officials, but they are still rolling out the red carpet for her visit in the hopes of moderating the CDU position.

A candidate country since 1999, Turkey’s campaign for membership has caused a number of rows in Brussels. Having been deemed in the past not ready to take up full negotiations on membership in the EU, Ankara's long wait will end in December when EU leaders decide whether the country has made enough progress on democratic, legal and economic reforms to begin full accession talks.

"We need a sensible policy regarding Turkey," Merkel said on Saturday, according to the DPA news agency. "The government is being completely unrealistic when on one hand they want to be thrifty with German funding to the EU and then on the other hand supports a rapid accession of this country to the EU."

Merkel and others in the CDU have said the EU will have its hands full once it accepts ten new members mostly from Eastern Europe this May and that any new negotiations with other countries would overwhelm the bloc.

Germany's conservatives have staked out a position on Turkish EU membership directly opposed to that of the ruling center-left coalition of Social Democrats and Greens. Both Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer have said they are in principle for Turkey joining the EU -- so long as the country meets the criteria set for all candidate nations.

"Turkey has made very impressive progress, but there is still a way to go," Fischer said during a visit to the country in January. To underscore the importance Berlin places on the matter, Schröder will visit Turkey later this month.

A Christian club?

Tayyip Erdogan

Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Many Turks believe that a lot of European politicians are opposed to Turkish membership because it is a Muslim country and the EU is "Christian club." Now, Erdogan hopes to convince Merkel that his AKP party simply is modern conservative party with religious roots like her Christian Democrats.

European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen has warned the conservatives from trying to make the Turkish membership bid an issue for domestic politics. Last month, German conservatives said they were considering making it part of their campaign for European Parliament elections this summer.

The Christian Democrats' official hard line against the Turkish EU bid is not supported by all of the party. Volker Rühe, a former government minister a leading foreign policy expert for the CDU, said in an newspaper interview that the decision to vehemently oppose Turkish membership by conservative Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber was a "clear break" with the policy of former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which Merkel had "unfortunately taken up."

"It's a mistake while in the opposition to deviate from what we supported while in government," Rühe told the Rheinischen Post newspaper. He also said there had been "very populist comments" coming from the German conservatives that had to be "omitted at all costs" from the upcoming European elections.

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