Daniel Howden: Ankara's EU project is in danger of collapse

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Turkey is in crisis. The shooting of one of the country's top judges by an Islamic lawyer last week has sharply polarised the nation's politics. And the angry popular response to a murder believed to have been motivated by disagreements over the right to wear headscarves, has had the effect of forcing people to take sides.

The hugely important project of creating a country that is Muslim, secular and European, is in danger of collapse.

The emergence of a democratically elected government, with roots in political Islam, in a country where 99 per cent are Muslim, has coincided with enormous progress politically, socially and economically. The engine for much of this progress has been the prospect of EU membership.

Reformist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoganhas taken the country to the brink of accession talks. His administration has balanced the contradictory pressures of EU calls for reform, a socially conservative Muslim population and an abrasive relationship with the influential military establishment which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of the secular state.

But the slaying of Judge Mustafa Yucel Ozbilgin has provided Turkey's powerful military with the rallying point they needed to attract public support and question the legitimacy of the government.

Mr Erdogan is now caught between the secularists, who with the backing of the generals, have labeled his administration the "government of murderers" and Islamists who are violently impatient for their religion to be enshrined in law.

A collision between these forces could set the country back to the bad old days of corrupt "secular" governments. The forces now agitating against Mr Erdogan are the same establishment ones that tried for months to prevent him from taking office after winning free elections.

In this context, granting concessions over Cyprus, which the EU is set to demand, but would be incendiary to the nationalists, may be practically impossible.

Patience and a perspective on the scale and importance of Turkey's European project are called for from Brussels. Unfortunately, there is little sign that it will be forthcoming.

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