Boris keeps Turks waiting

Ankara's man in London explains why his country's place is at the heart of Europe and how after all

Did you know Boris Johnson's great grandfather was a liberal Turkish journalist called Ali Kemal alive during the dying days of the Ottoman empire? Well of course you did. London's new Tory mayor banged on about his roots a fair bit during this year's election campaign.

But the centuries old ties between Turkey and the UK go much deeper than Johnson's ancestry. Just ask Turkey's ambassador to the UK, Mehmet Yiğit Alpogan: “Turkey's membership of the European Union is one of the projects that the Turkish public opinion pay attention to and in that respect the support that Great Britain gives to Turkey is very much welcomed and appreciated.”

So has he actually met Johnson? “I am waiting for that appointment to happen,” says Alpogan, who seemed just a tiny bit disappointed a request to London's mayor has yet to be taken up.

“I know that he is a very busy person and it will be my pleasure to be able to meet him, get together with him, and talk about many things including this past life.” A suitably diplomatic take on the whole matter.

But if he does feel let down Alpogan can perhaps take some heart from the UK government's strong support of Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union. An attitude which contrasts sharply with the more reserved reaction of some of the other EU states such as France and Austria.

"Turkey's place is in Europe," says Alpogan. "There is no question about this." And the current UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, agrees. In a Telegraph article last year he expressed his approval of Turkey's accession, highlighting among others the pressing energy benefits: “Turkey is an increasingly important transit route for oil and natural gas, with 10 per cent of the world's oil flowing through the Bosporus.”

The Foreign Secretary's predecessor, Jack Straw, had gone even further and had equated membership as a means towards deflecting a “clash of civilisations”.

Boris Johnson, too, has spoken in favour of Turkey's accession to the EU. “We would be crazy to reject Turkey,” wrote Boris Johnson in his book 'The Dream of Rome', “which is not only the former heartland of the Roman empire but also, I see, one of the leading suppliers of British fridges.”

Indeed the UK is the second largest export market for Turkey. For the UK investor also, Turkey is important.

Yet the question of Turkey's EU membership is controversial. Polls indicate many citizens across Europe do not approve the move.

The situation is not helped by opposition from French President Nicholas Sarkozy and his alternative offers of a Mediterranean Union or a referendum over EU accession.

“If the Europeans say that European Union is a Christian club they are thereby making a discrimination,” says Alpogan. "They are committing a grave mistake. Of course Turkey wouldn’t have a place in such a European Union. But I don’t think that the European public opinion thinks this way ... we hope that this understanding will continue to prevail and the European Union will be a place where the alliance of civilisations will be represented."

One of the apparent reasons citizens of European states fear Turkish membership of the EU is the prospect of mass immigration.

The ambassador points, however, towards other countries in Europe whose migrants returned to their home countries sometime after joining the EU, such as the Spanish, Greeks and now the Polish.

“For a short while it might be true,” admits Alpogan. “But with the investment, economic activity and other developments that come with EU membership, soon these people would go back - at least that is what the history of the European Union shows us and that is how it is proven.”

Maybe, but that argument may fall on deaf ears in a Europe already brimming with debates over whether immigration has gone too far in this corner of the globe.

Yet there is one more twist to this whole accession debate. Who is to gain more from this membership, Europe or Turkey? A quick look at Turkey on the world's map shows just why this nation of 80 million is considered so crucial. Yes it is about trade and access to energy but it is also about regional influence.

Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia.

And the ambassador is quick to highlight the “geo-strategic” and “geographical” benefits that lie in store for the European Union were Turkey to become a member.

Then there's Turkey's relationship with Central Asian, through a shared Turkic cultural and linguistic heritage with many of those countries, may potentially prove to be the most useful one for Europe in the future given the region being a major fuel reserve for the world.

But, of course, most European visitors to Turkey go there for one purpose - their holidays.

According to the ambassador two million British tourists head to Turkey each year and the figures are on the rise at the rate of 10-20 percent. “We have already 20,000 British families who have come and settled in Turkey or have a second home in Turkey,” says Alpogan. “Of course we are very glad to have them there and they are another strong link between the two countries.”

Indeed although he may not have found the time to meet with the Turkish ambassador, Boris Johnson, just a fortnight after winning the election for mayor in May, disappeared off to the south western coast of Turkey for a break with his family.

The trip did not go un-noticed by the local media, with the Turkish Daily News reporting that the London mayor's ancestral ties with their country and Islam would “hopefully be beneficial for Turkey and certainly his choice of holiday destination can only be seen as advantageous for Turkish tourism.”

Perhaps. Although it may be that it has the reverse effect. Only time will tell.