Not long ago I landed in Istanbul, which used to be called Constantinople, and before that Byzantium. Never fear: I am not going to treat you to a discussion of the Basilica of Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, or the Topkapi Palace. I have little feeling for architecture (though I can still feel the vague unease of being under the dome of Hagia Sophia, which seems to be dangerously suspended from the sky), and I imagine that many readers will know the city already. A lot of Spaniards go there: you seem to hear almost as much Spanish as English in the streets.
My impression is that Istanbul lives straddled between the past and the future. By past I do not mean the imperial past; I mean a past of our own, recent sort. The first impression I got in Istanbul was that I had entered a time warp, and come out in the Spain of the 1970s. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not a great one: the general atmosphere of respectable poverty and premature prosperity, the effort to be modern and European together with the overwhelming weight of tradition, the mixture of laicism and omnipresent religion all reminds you of the Spain of those days. But it turns to absolute déjà vu if you happen to read of the arrest of several officers, including two generals, suspected of organizing a coup d'état; and the prime minister, Erdogan, solemnly declaring that Turkey is no longer a land of coups. Which is just what the Spanish prime minister, Suárez, used to say in the late 1970s, when the generals were plotting a coup every other day.
Of course the Turkish army now and the Spanish one then are not the same: the Spanish army saw itself as the guarantor of a Catholic state, while the Turkish one still sees itself as the guarantor of a secular one. But they both feel authorized to supervise the democracies that pay their salaries. This military tutelage (enshrined in the Turkish Constitution) was until lately a formal obstacle to EU membership, until it was derogated by referendum in 2010. Turkey has long aspired to join the EU. In this, too, it resembles the Spain of the seventies.
The moments in the course of history when common sense and reconciliations prevail are ephemeral"
The EU's reticence about Turkey is understandable enough. If it is already difficult to form an effective European Union with the present countries, that have so much in common, how hard will it be with another country of 70 million people, the vast majority of them Muslims? Difficult, but probably indispensable, unless Europe wants to miss the bus - the bus of the future. Turkey is in a key position, between Europe and Asia, and is or aspires to be a regional power. Many are now wondering how the Arab revolutions will turn out; if those countries will achieve real democratic systems; whether Islam and democracy are really compatible. Many people, in those countries, look to the mirror of Turkey, where Erdogan and the moderate Islam of his AKP party have made them compatible (a thing which in theory seemed impossible but in practice need not be harder than compatibility between democracy and Christianity). And everyone seems to agree that Turkey's influence in the region is growing, and that, if Europe wishes to play a role there, the best instrument is a European Turkey.
Once again I have read a text by Stefan Zweig about the fall of Constantinople, an event that shocked Europe and decided its destiny. Zweig states that "the moments in the course of history when common sense and reconciliations prevail are ephemeral," lamenting that "time and again in history these tragic moments happen, when the protection of Europe would demand the maximum centralization of untied forces, but the principal states are incapable of setting aside their little rivalries for one moment." Perhaps part of the present destiny of the EU will be decided in Turkey. Hopefully it will be a moment of common sense, and not of tragedy.