Turkey may drop out of its customs union with the EU if it is excluded from plans to increase the number of EU member states, Ankara’s EU envoy said on 12 March. ‘Our relations with the EU could not survive under these circumstances and the customs union could not be continued,’ Uluc Ozulker, speaking from Strasbourg, told the Anatolian news agency. He said that without eventual EU membership, the customs union would serve no purpose and Turkey would have to turn elsewhere – implying closer links with Turkey’s Muslim neighbours.

Ozulker’s warning comes in the context of Turkey’s ongoing campaign to join the EU alongside the former Communist states of eastern Europe, a campaign which has met strong opposition from some quarters of the EU. ‘The EU is in the process of building a civilization in which Turkey has no place. Turkey is not a candidate for EU membership, neither in the short nor the long term,’ former Belgian premier Wilfred Martens said on 4 March. Martens, who heads the European Peoples’ Party, was speaking at a meeting of European centrist and Christian Democratic parties. He added that Turkey’s Islamic heritage made it unsuitable for EU membership.

Outraged, the Turkish government pointed out that Martens’ remarks did not reflect official EU policy. The UK, the Netherlands, France and Italy have since played down the remarks. France in particular has tried to extend an olive branch to Ankara, saying that a new law reducing the number of days that police can keep suspects in custody would help to address European concerns about Turkish human rights.

The wrangling between the two sides has grown heated in recent months, with Ankara threatening to veto the expansion of NATO if Turkey is kept out of the EU. Turkey accuses the EU of failing to deliver on promises it made under the customs union agreement, while the EU says Turkey is late in harmonising its commercial regime with European practices. The issue has been complicated by divisions within the Turkish political establishment. The army and secularist politicians are generally keen on the idea of joining the EU, while the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah) remains ambivalent.