The Turks have always been The Other, a common foe useful to Europeans for stimulating alliances against them and, by contrast, for defining identity. Whether depicted on the walls of the Vatican or the stage of Mozart, Rossini or Shakespeare, the Turks were from another world – turbaned, moustachioed, daunting. Many of the Turkish workers who came from the hills of Anatolia to the factory floors of Europe in the 1960s did indeed seem different. So it is scant surprise that today Europe has a problem in deciding how to handle this bulky neighbour, and casts its problem in terms of what the Turks should do rather than investigating the truth of the stereotype, let alone its likely shape by the middle of the next decade, when on the best of assumptions Turkey may finally join the EU.

Yes, Turkey is different from the EU-25, just as each country in the EU-25 is different from the next. An economist’s snapshot will focus on the size of the country’s agricultural sector, on a hidden economy of the scale of Italy’s in the 1960s, on GDP per head that is a mere one-seventh of that of the EU-25 – though higher than those of the 2007 entrants, Bulgaria and Romania – on daunting regional disparities, and on 10% unemployment. This economic analysis would also include $30bn annual exports to the EU-25 and $35bn imports from it, the dynamism of Turkey’s entrepreneurs and the country’s growing role as an East-West corridor for Caspian oil and gas.

The sociologist will emphasise the cohesion created by the extended family in Turkey, a respect for institutions that is more pronounced than in most Western countries but a correspondingly low belief in the rights of the individual, a social fabric as multi-patterned as a carpet, a society which respects work and is open to individual advancement – but also an Islamic one with a continuing debate on the role of Islam, with the persistence of violence in the home, and, particularly in the South East, of “honour” killings.

For his part, the political scientist will highlight the sharp elbows of the armed forces, fears that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan wishes to desecularise Turkey, discrimination against religious minorities, be they Islamic, Christian or Jewish, the Kurdish question, the interminable problem of Cyprus, and Turkey’s strengthening relationship with Russia.

Such is the situation in September 2005, a complex mix of traditions and strengths, reflecting the fact that a country with such natural riches and so strategic a position just has, in a manner of speaking, too much history.

Go back 10 years, and the picture was different. Turkey’s Customs Union with the EU had yet to start. Ankara was in regular confrontation with Athens. Inflation was raging. Intellectual property protection was rudimentary. Human rights violations went largely unchallenged, with the exigencies of civil war in the south-east making abuses hard to control. Some liberalization of the economy had started, but there was little hint of how rapidly Turkey would respond to the globalization of the past decade.

Go forward 10 years, and the picture will again be different. The reforms of the past decade have done much to reduce institutionalized corruption and politicians’ abuse of the state banking system. Constant interaction with the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund is helping to improve Turkey’s economic management. And the private sector has developed its own momentum despite the failings of the governments of the day.

“By 2015, the EU will have a less vigorous population than Turkey – only around 45% of the population will be of working age, compared with Turkey’s 68%”

A stable, prosperous Europe could both welcome and stimulate Turkey, just as a stagnant, ageing Europe could hamper and resist it. Equally, a continuation of failures over the Palestinian issue and in Iraq and Afghanistan could continue to inflame the Middle East, propelling Turkey again into the sort of frontier role it had with the Russians during the Cold War.

Paradoxically, it was the Russians, or at least the military advances they made in the 18th Century, who largely contributed to Turkey’s espousal of modernization. The course of this modernization has been tortuous. During the 19th Century, it led to the substitution of continental European law for Islamic law in the commercial, civil and criminal fields, to the gradual development of education and publishing, to reforms in state finances – and to the progressive removal of checks on the authority of the Sultan. In the 20th Century, it saw the ending of the Sultanate and Caliphate, and the start of Turkey’s economic transformation from a rural to an increasingly urbanized country with a market oriented society and industrialisation. All this was required if Turkey was to survive, let alone compete in a generally hostile world.

Memories of this hostility still colour Turkish approaches to the outside world. But they have not stopped its quest for modernization, nor its choice of the West as the main source of ideas and technology, a course confirmed in 1923 despite the just-finished invasions by the armed forces of four Western countries – carried out by the succeeding generations of politicians who have run the Turkish Republic since its formation.

The question of how Western is Turkey raises issues about the West itself. Does the West involve a Bush, Kissinger or Clinton vision of the US and its role? A Blair, Chirac or Merkel vision of Europe? A moral or pragmatic approach to foreign policy? A liberal, consumerist or conservative view of society?

All these views are represented in Turkey, in the bookshops and political parties, universities and newspaper columns. The concerns some Europeans may have are discussed, and far more heatedly than in Europe itself. A generation ago, discussion of the different ethnic groups which make up Turkey was taboo. The PKK insurrection of the 1990s put the issue of the Kurds firmly on the map, and policy towards the Kurds has developed from a purely military response to discussion by the present Prime Minister of ‘the Kurdish problem’.

This issue affects and concerns most Turks, and is fully debated – as is the question of Ottoman responsibility for the deaths of over 500,000 Christian Armenians during World War I. These issues are as much emotional as historical, but the question of the role of Islam directly touches almost every citizen. How far should personal piety enter the public domain? Is the electronically magnified call to prayer an intrusion, or balm for the souls of the Faithful? Is the headscarf a symbol of freedom of expression or of bigoted pressure? Does Prime Minister Erdogan, himself the product of a religious education, wish to move the country to Islamic Law? Are such developments compatible with modernization, let alone Westernisation?

It is precisely because many liberals see the armed forces as a barrier to the shariat that they accept a role for Turkey’s armed forces which would be inconceivable in Western Europe. Turkey’s janissaries like Rome’s Praetorian Guard made and broke rulers in imperial times. In the 20th Century, the armed forces have brought down the government on at least three occasions. Even now the top generals make more public pronouncements than would be countenanced in Europe, even if the National Security Council has been much reduced and military expenditure brought under parliamentary scrutiny.

In all these areas, the Turks are seeking to develop a consensus that will allow them to pursue modernization, and for most of them this means Westernisation and securing Turkey’s European vocation.

The country was Western enough to fight in Korea in the early 1950s, to join NATO and engage in the Cold War, to supply troops and officials to Somalia in the 1990s and in Afghanistan today. And it is largely Western in its philosophy, despite a degree of étatism not normally found outside a communist state. All this is fairly easy to explain; Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led his country through independence, saw the state as the means to introduce development and Western ideas. After his death, those who had gained power from these policies proved reluctant to relinquish them – and their successors still seek to cling on to them. The result is a deeply bureaucratic country with rules for everything and one which is far from Western in its sense of the rights of the individual. There is no Hobbesian contract in Turkey, rather the view that the individual only has the rights that the state has granted.

While all this may be true, it is not what feeds European anxieties. These instead tend to reflect the image first fostered in 19th Century reports of Byronic struggles for Hellenic freedom from Turkish tyranny and cruelty to the more recent violence of the Turkish army’s invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s.

However justified the Turks felt, and still feel, about the need to protect their community, this last act has been the most damaging to Turkey’s image. Indeed, a settlement on Cyprus would go far to amending Western attitudes to the country, just as the current détente with Athens is causing Greece to be Turkey’s advocate abroad. Ankara would also be well advised to make some sign of contrition on the treatment by Turkey of the Armenians at the time of World War I, even if Turkey itself has received scant sympathy for the millions of Turkish refugees driven from their homes as the far-flung Ottoman empire collapsed.

By 2015, the EU will also have changed. It will have a less vigorous population than Turkey – only around 45% of the population will be of working age (15-64), compared with Turkey’s forecast 68%. Europe may by then be running short of labour and could be needing the very agricultural surpluses it currently fears from Turkey. The EU will welcome the market of over 80m people that Turkey will then represent, and it may well benefit too from the energy of Turkey’s private sector which, stimulated by the Customs Union, now supplies Europe with a growing volume of textiles, automobiles and white and brown goods.

If these forecasts begin to prove correct, then a revisionist image of The Turk may well develop, and a self-confident Europe could be welcoming the cultural heritage which comes with Turkey and the great civilizations that flourished long before the Turks’ own arrival in Anatolia some 700 years ago. Should Europe turn away from Turkey, then the risk is that rejection and wounded pride could cause some Turks to seek solace in an Islamic and non-Western world, others to demand that their country should follow a more autonomous route, and yet others to seek regional solutions. That would be to the political and economic cost of both sides, and would seriously weaken the stability of Europe’s southeast flank.