Ankara: Turkey`s long-running bid to join the European Union has suffered a tough blow amid an acrimonious dispute over a crackdown on opposition media, but analysts say there still remains hope its candidacy is not yet dead in the water.
Recent police raids on media outlets affiliated with tough-talking President Recep Tayyip Erdogan`s top foe, the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, sparked an angry exchange with Brussels, which said the arrests undermined media freedom.
Erdogan showed no fear on cranking up the dispute further, telling the 28-nation bloc to "mind their own business", and "not to give a democracy lesson to Turkey".
Meanwhile, EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir said he did not care if Turkey was admitted, prompting jokes on Twitter questioning the point of his ministry.
The rebukes astonished EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who had visited Turkey only this month along with two commissioners just after taking office, in a sign of the new team`s willingness to kick-start Ankara`s bid.
"Turkish-EU relations are not in terminal decline, but going through very rough storms at present," Felix Schmidt of German think-tank the Friedrich Ebert Foundation told a news agency. A Western diplomat told a news agency that while the current rhetoric was severe "there will always be ups and downs in Turkish-EU ties".
"If you simply look at the rhetoric, it might be down for now but there will be ups again," the diplomat added.
Turkey`s efforts to join the EU had already stalled in recent years at several stumbling blocks, including its human rights record and objections from some EU states to the principle of admitting an overwhelmingly Muslim country.
Turkey, an associate member of the old European Economic Community since 1963, first sought to become an EU member in 1987 but did not launch formal accession talks until 2005 -- the same time as Croatia, which became EU member in May 2013.
Only one new chapter has been opened in Turkish-EU talks since 2010, bringing the number of policy areas under negotiation to 14 out of the 35 that need to be completed.
Turkey`s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) co-founded by Erdogan embarked on an ambitious reformist agenda when it first came to power in 2002 with the aim of closer EU integration.
But there are growing fears Turkey is drifting away from Western-style democracy on which the modern republic is based, with Erdogan accused of drifting to authoritarian rule after taking the presidency in August.
"The bare political reality today is that Turkey`s EU accession is more problematic today than at any point since negotiations started in October 2005," Brussels-based think-tank Carnegie Europe said in a report this month.
"Turkey now meets fewer of the most important standards for a candidate country than in the past," it added.
Some commentators see the entire Turkey-EU saga as a cynical game with the current tense climate benefiting both sides and Turkish membership not realistic in the foreseeable future.
Erdogan`s assertive approach may help him in the run-up to June`s legislative elections, given the decline in Turkish public appetite for EU membership, while there is growing scepticism in Europe to take in such a sizeable Muslim country.
"We are not the EU`s doorman," he said. "If they let us in, they do. If they don`t, they don`t."
The December survey conducted by the EU`s polling organisation Eurobarometer revealed Turks` support for membership has hit the lowest this year with 28 percent -- down from 38 percent in 2013 and around 36 percent in 2012.
But neither Turkey nor the EU wants to be the party that leaves the negotiating table, and analysts say the EU is still the best alternative for Ankara despite its growing ties with Russia.
"There is no other realistic option for Turkey. The European option is the best option," Schmidt said.
Turkey`s ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, said current tensions would not deter Ankara from keeping open its dialogue channels with the EU. He said Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu`s planned visit to Brussels in January would take place as planned.
"It`s not postponed. We are working on a suitable date," he told a news agency, adding the membership talks were continuing and on track.