Leading article: A step towards Europe

For a country that has been seeking to join the European Union since 1962, it is regrettable that Turkey is so little known or understood in the West. Its internal politics are hard to fathom, which is why yesterday's referendum on a new constitution has excited little interest outside the country.

This is a pity, for the outcome of the vote will be an important indication of Turkey's progress from a highly centralised semi-democracy, in which the military is almost a law unto itself, to a democracy of a more recognisably European type. Today, it is difficult to try the military in civilian courts. Moreover, the generals exercise great influence over the judges, who have tended to do their bidding, outlawing any parties, either religious or separatist-inclined, that pose a threat to the military's vision of a secular state.

In the referendum put forward by the country's moderate Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, voters are being asked, among other things, to make the military more accountable to courts and hand the power to ban parties from judges to parliament.

Mr Erdogan's opponents, just as they have done in the past, insist that there is a secret agenda behind these supposedly progressive reforms, which is to subvert the secular order that the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, established in the 1920s following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Mr Erdogan is undoubtedly religious. But there is no evidence so far of concealed anti-democratic intentions. On the contrary, most of the Prime Minister's initiatives, such as talking to Kurdish separatists, have been a marked improvement on the oppressive policies espoused by his more secular predecessors.

Britain has long-supported Turkey's entry into the EU, rightly judging that the country would be a powerful asset if anchored more firmly to the West, both demographically and in security terms. Regrettably, that view has not prevailed in Europe for a range of reasons, some to do with racism and a phobia about Islam. But other objections have been well founded, based on a conviction that Europe should not lower its standards on democracy and human rights merely to accommodate Turkey's oft-announced desire to join the club.

If the referendum succeeds, some of those objections will have become redundant. Turkey will be better off internally, and will also be on much firmer ground when challenging those EU countries that want to keep the door closed to Turkish membership.