Cameron backs Turkey for EU


British prime minister David Cameron promised today to fight for Turkey to join the European Union and criticised opponents of Turkish membership as prejudiced.

Turkey began accession talks with the 27-member EU in 2005, but progress has been slow. The EU is deeply divided over whether to give full membership, with France taking the strongest stand against Turkish entry.

On his first visit to Ankara since becoming prime minister in May, Mr Cameron said Turkey would bring greater prosperity and political stability to the E thanks to its vast economic potential and growing influence in the Middle East.

"This is something I feel very strongly, very passionately about," Mr Cameron said in a speech to the Union of Chambers of Commerce and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey, an influential business group.

"Together, I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels," he added.

The prime minister described Turkey as a fast-growing economic power that would be increasingly important and said this was a huge opportunity for British businesses.

"Today the value of our trade is over $9 billion a year. I want us to double this over the next five years," he said.

"Trade is the biggest wealth creator we've ever known, and when we talk about stimulus, it is trade and a trade deal that can give our economies the greatest stimulus," he said.

This was a pointed comment at a time when Mr Cameron's coalition government is preparing to slash public spending to reduce a record peacetime deficit. Critics say the cuts risk damaging a fragile recovery and bringing back recession.

Improving trade ties with fast-growing emerging markets is a central plank of the Cameron government's foreign policy. After Turkey, Mr Cameron heads to India with a big delegation of business leaders and a similar message on the benefits of trade.

Mr Cameron said that in light of Turkey's unique importance in terms of security, diplomacy and economics, it angered him that its efforts to join the EU were being frustrated.

The remarks will set him on a collision course with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who promised in his election campaign in 2007 to stand firm against Turkish accession, citing cultural differences and concern over the EU's political cohesion.

Mr Cameron said those who oppose Turkish accession fell into three categories: protectionists who see Turkey's growing economic power as a threat, "the polarised" who think the country should choose between East and West, and the prejudiced who misunderstand Islam.

He stressed the importance of Turkey as a strategic partner with a presence in Afghanistan and the potential to help solve diplomatic headaches including Iran's nuclear programme and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Gaza cannot and must not be allowed to remain a prison camp," he said, urging Turkey to help seek a solution.

Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan said at a joint news conference with Mr Cameron later that relations between London and Ankara were enjoying "a golden age".

The two men were challenged over the issue of the latest UN sanctions against Iran, backed by Britain. Turkey voted against them at the Security Council.

In response, Mr Cameron said the bilateral relationship was strong enough to discuss such differences in approach. He said the key points were that Turkey and Britain shared the goal of dissuading Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and that Turkey had a crucial diplomatic role to play in achieving that.