One of the iconic images of European diplomacy in recent years shows Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, glad-handing his way through a meeting of European Union leaders in Brussels. It is December 2004 and the EU has just agreed to open accession talks with the government in Ankara after 40 years of courtship on both sides.

Mr Erdogan is an intense and charismatic man with a disconcerting stare. He is not especially sociable. Famously abstemious and reputed to have a fierce temper, he doesn’t smile easily.

But there he is on the television, beaming and chatting with his EU counterparts, being embraced by one or two, not speaking a word of a language other than Turkish and loving every minute of his moment in the spotlight.

This footage is often shown on Turkish television to illustrate a generic EU news report. Yet, although it is only two years old, it already has the quality of a sepia-tinged artefact.

When EU leaders meet in Brussels this week, Mr Erdogan will not be at the table. Indeed, they are doing their utmost to make sure Turkey is not even on the agenda. For some of them, Mr Erdogan is a reminder of a pledge they wish they had not made.

Mr Erdogan and his government, which has its roots in Turkey’s relatively moderate strand of political Islam, carry some of the blame for the troubled state of the EU/Turkey relationship. Ankara refuses to recognise the government of Cyprus, an EU member state. A proposal to allow commercial ties, put forward by Turkey last week, may help to break the immediate deadlock on this issue.

But it is unlikely to lessen Mr Erdogan’s obvious and growing bewilderment at the challenges facing Turkey if it is serious about becoming an EU member state.

Mr Erdogan insisted last week that, regardless of what effect the Cyprus impasse has on Turkey’s EU accession, his government would continue to implement democratic, political and social reforms.

He is clearly sincere when he says this: he is the most reform-minded Turkish prime minister since Turgut Ozal in the 1980s. Yet his inspiration is no longer the EU.

A defining moment for him, commentators say, was a decision in November last year by the European Court of Human Rights – which is an institution of the Council of Europe rather than the EU – to uphold Turkey’s constitutional restrictions on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf. It is an issue close to Mr Erdogan personally: he grew up in a deeply religious family in a poor district of Istanbul and went to a religious school, and his wife, Emine, wears the garment.

He had hoped that joining the EU would allow Turkey to widen the space for religious observance, easing many of the state-imposed restrictions in areas such as the headscarf.

But diplomats say he failed to appreciate the extent to which these issues also divide European countries. It was an early lesson in the limits of Europe’s attractions for Mr Erdogan and for the emerging middle class of socially and religiously conservative Turks who form the core of his party’s support base.

The question many Turkish people are now asking is whether Mr Erdogan has had enough of being prime minister of his country and whether he will run for president when the post becomes vacant in May. He is known to want it – every ambitious Turkish politician does. “My hunch is that he is 80 per cent sure to go for it,” says a western diplomat in Ankara. But he is young – he will be 55 next February – and his background and religiosity may count against him.

Mr Erdogan was once a promising footballer who failed to make it as a professional because, it is said, the big Istanbul clubs objected to the Islamist-style beard he sported in the 1970s.

Instead, he channelled his energies into politics, becoming mayor of the city in 1994. He was jailed briefly in 1999 for alleged “anti- secularism”, an experience that converted him to the merits of democratic politics.

In Turkey, which is 98 per cent Muslim, the presidency is considered one of two ultimate bastions of secularism, alongside the armed forces.

Whether he insists on seeking the post – perhaps upsetting the delicate balance of power among Turkey’s political institutions and damaging his party’s chances in next November’s general election – will be the issue that dominates politics in the early months of 2007.

It is the sort of political fight that seems more to Mr Erdogan’s liking these days than another tedious EU summit.

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