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ISTANBUL, Sep 12 2011 (IPS) - The apparently eternal problem of Turkey’s entry into the European Union seems even further from resolution. Istanbul, its largest city, is sending mixed signals. The call to prayer from the minarets mixes with the roar of rush hour traffic. The hawking and bargaining in the monumental grand bazaar is thoroughly infiltrated by Western “civilisation”.

But if it is to find acceptance in European thought and politics, Turkey has to overcome a number of obstacles, some so large that they have exhausted the desire of the government and the people for EU membership. Ten years ago 70 percent of the population wanted to join the EU; today barely a quarter do, while fifty percent actively oppose the idea. This has become the largest obstacle.

The obligatory visit to the area of Istanbul that features the Blue Mosque, Topkapi palace, and Hagia Sophia (first a Christian basilica, then a mosque, and now a state museum) makes it perfectly clear that Turkey’s past is fully incorporated into the present. Flooded with tourists, the monumentality of this royal quarter demonstrates that there is a major Islamic component of Turkey’s national discourse even though the official (and untrustworthy) figures about its citizens’ religious habits cite a mere 30 percent of fervent believers.

But the real obstacle to Turkey’s membership in the EU is not religion; it is numbers: there are just “too many” Turks, 74 million to be precise. Turkey would be the largest member of the EU in area and would threaten the demographic preeminence of Germany, which has a population of 81 million. Turkey’s entry would also mean the addition of a language or family of languages spoken by over 200 million people in countries that stretch all the way to China.

The question of language is related to yet another obstacle to Turkey’s entry into the EU: the survival of a latent (or explicit) nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, though this may simply be a matter of identity that can be explained away as a mode of self-protection against the impossibility of a marriage with Brussels. In other words, the shrinkage of territory caused by the implacable political and military decline that culminated in the First World War is no obstacle to the survival of a Greater Turkey, which would have a linguistic base and enjoy the support of certain nearby countries. It is not clear whether the existence of a Greater Turkey with a stabilizing influence would be an advantage or a vague challenge for NATO or the EU.

But Turkey’s main liability is the persistence of a standoff between two irreconcilable elements which are locked in a competition that barely shows signs of resolution even now: civilian power versus the military. What is curious about this antagonism is that most Turkish government officials are inflexible in their commitment to maintaining the separation of religion and the state. This is a pillar of the code introduced by Kemal Ataturk in 1922 as a central element of the country’s modernisation. It is the military’s understanding that its mission is to defend this separation that led it to interfere in politics in the first place – a practice that puts Brussels on edge.

The political trajectory of the country since that time has been jolted by the evolution of the Justice and Development Party, which made impressive gains at the polls in the last elections. Led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its orientation is “moderately” Islamic. Backed by both a middle class lifted by economic development and the masses desiring improvement, Erdogan has managed to master the military, arresting and sending into retirement a segment of restive high officials and then provoking the resignation of almost the entire general staff. His next gambit may be constitutional reform now that he has a parliamentary majority. The big question is whether or not he will strengthen Islam.

Hanging over the entire question of EU membership is the veto that Greece promises to wield as long as Turkey occupies half of Cyprus and fears persist of a wave of uncontrolled Turkish migration. The solution, for now, is digging a moat along the porous border.

And finally, Turkey must suffer the consequences of the insistence by successive administrations in Washington to use the promise of EU membership as a reward for helping defend Washington’s interests in the Middle East.

For Ankara, thus, the path to a place in the EU appears long and hard, but this does not seem to be disturbing the sleep of the Turks. Whose loss this is is an open question. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Joaquin Roy, ‘Jean Monnet” professor and Director of the European Union Centre of the University of Miami.

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