By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Turkey has been trying for years to join the European Union, presenting itself as a growing economic and political power and a bridge to Asian and Middle Eastern markets.
But the next country to join the EU's existing 28 members is more likely to be one of six small Balkan countries, five of which still formed part of Yugoslavia when Turkey made its first membership bid.
Several powerful EU states are reluctant to open the door to a large, mainly Muslim country, even a member of the NATO Western military alliance, fearing a troublesome integration whereas small countries have a track record of smooth accession.
While the EU focuses its attention elsewhere, the Turkish government and public are increasingly despondent and have started to wonder whether it really needs Europe after all.
"I guess that nobody wants to say that we are not going to continue with the accession process, neither the EU nor Turkey," said Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, speaking at a Brussels think-tank in September.
"But there will be one day in which we will have to decide on what to do about it, because this is going nowhere."
Joining the EU can bring the benefits of easy access to the world's largest trading bloc, free movement of workers, funding for poorer regions and infrastructure and the chance to belong to a relatively stable political union.
Over the next decade or so, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo may all be able to take advantage of those perks, following Slovenia and Croatia to a spot on the members' list.
Meanwhile Turkey's membership bid has been virtually frozen for three years, held back by political obstacles and resistance in some EU countries, including Germany, France and Austria.
Support for EU membership among the Turkish public fell to 44 percent this year from 73 percent in 2004, according to a recent German Marshall Fund report.
Ankara's chief EU negotiator Egemen Bagis said last month his country would probably never join the EU because of the attitudes of the bloc's existing members.
A senior official with direct knowledge of enlargement discussions said EU leaders were not focused on Turkey which would be the most populous member, giving it the largest share of seats in the European Parliament and influence across Europe's institutions.
"There is a real openness to enlargement to the Balkans and further east (in eastern Europe)," the official said, pointing out that "six or seven" countries in the region could ultimately become members, boosting the EU's total to 34 or 35 states.
"The Western Balkans are very close to Europe. But Turkey is qualitatively different for all sorts of reasons. It's an issue of geography, the fact that it is a Muslim country, the fact that public opinion in some member states is very strongly against it becoming a member."
Turkey is still trying to win favor in Brussels. A package of reforms unveiled on Monday, including allowing education in languages other than Turkish at non-state schools and a possible lowering of the threshold for a political party to enter parliament, was welcomed by the European Commission.
The steps, designed to salvage a peace process with Kurdish insurgents, could help Turkey get higher marks in the Commission's annual progress report due on October 16, helping its prospects of winning approval from EU states to open talks on a new policy area, known as a chapter, towards membership.
But opening a new chapter - one of 35 it must complete - will not change the overall picture of a stuttering negotiation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives oppose Turkish EU membership on the grounds that its size would "overburden" the bloc. While she may be forced into a coalition with the Social Democrats or the Greens who want the EU to continue accession talks with Turkey, it is not a top priority.
Some EU states, including Britain, strongly support Turkey's membership bid, seeing the addition of a dynamic economy and a powerful player in Middle East politics as a benefit for the EU.
Marietje Schaake, a Dutch liberal member of the European Parliament, believes the EU must continue to work on Turkish accession while pushing for reforms.
"Our relationship is going through difficult times ... but as a trade partner, as a NATO ally, as a neighbor in a complicated Middle East, we must be aware of the importance of the relationship between the EU and Turkey," she said.
"It doesn't mean that we should be without criticism."
Rights group Amnesty International accused Turkish authorities on Wednesday of committing human rights violations on a massive scale in their attempts to crush protests earlier this year, a report likely to be used as ammunition by those skeptical of Turkish membership.
Turkey became an associate of the bloc in the 1960s but accession talks launched in 2005 got bogged down in a dispute over the divided island of Cyprus, an EU member
Diplomats say making progress on reuniting Cyprus at talks this month could be the key to moving talks forward.
Turkey is starting to look at what a relationship with the EU would look like if membership does not look achievable.
Turkish-EU ties are already strong. A U.S. ally which joined NATO in 1952 and is a committed member of the Western alliance with its second-largest deployable military force, Turkey is a valuable foreign policy partner.
Trade and economic partnerships are also close. Yenel, the Turkish ambassador, was confident these ties would continue regardless of whether Turkey joins the bloc.
"The intrinsic link, the complex link with the EU will continue no matter what," he said.
But if talks on Cyprus fail, Ankara should recognize its EU membership bid has stalled and tell Brussels what it wants instead, for example a free trade agreement, to replace the existing customs union, Yenel said.
Chief negotiator Bagis was also confident that the EU and Turkey would continue to work side by side.
"In the long run I think Turkey will end up like Norway. We will be at European standards, very closely aligned but not as a member," he said.
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker and Justyna Pawlak; editing by Anna Willard)