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To Brussels and back, triumphant

For a moment on Saturday, it looked as if Recep Tayyip Erdogan was about to break into song.

Turkey's prime minister was being cheered by a crowd in the capital Ankara on his triumphant return from Brussels, where he secured talks on his country's entry to the European Union.

Standing atop a platform, Erdogan took the microphone and suddenly music was heard over the loudspeakers. The crowd waited, anticipating a verse of the national anthem, perhaps, or an ancient Anatolian folk dirge. But no. He just wanted the music to stop, so he could make a speech.

He spoke and the moment passed. Yet the warmth of the welcome remained. Erdogan had clearly achieved something worth cheering. Some Turkish commentators describe getting a date to start the EU accession process as the most important victory in the republic's 81-year history.

The speech was full of thank you's to Europe and to Turkey. A pity there was no song, though.

Resident president

This is Erdogan's moment. The question is how much it is also Erdogan's Turkey. The EU goal was once the preserve of Turkey's republican and secular elite. He is not a member of that elite. He is more representative of aspirational working people, secular and Muslim, who make up most of the 71m population.

Many of them voted for his socially conservative AK party two years ago. If the accession process is on track (it begins next October), they may do so again at the next polls in 2007 - unless Erdogan capitalises on his popularity by calling an early election.

Since he has a huge parliamentary majority and appears to be in total control of AK, why would he do this?

There is speculation that he wants to change the constitution to create a French-style presidential system, with himself as first occupant of the enhanced post. It is a move that appeals to his authoritarian streak.

The current president Ahmet Necdet Sezer is not due to stand down until 2007, however, and Erdogan can't be seen to be in too much of a hurry.

Arguably, the parliamentary system has not served Turkey well, as shown by a succession of weak coalition governments in the 1990s. But Erdogan has not begun to make that case. Perhaps he will do so now.

Isle of storms

One way in which Erdogan differs from his predecessors is in his attitude to Cyprus. Turkey's military presence in the north of the island, supposedly to protect the 180,000 ethnic Turks, has been "national policy" since the 1974 invasion.

In other words, it has been a sacred cow, subscribed to by successive governments. Yet when Erdogan aligned Turkey with a United Nations plan to reunify Cyprus, as a condition of getting EU accession under way, he broke that consensus.

When the talks in Brussels nearly collapsed over the island's fate, Erdogan was aware of how sensitive politically the issue was at home. That's why he threatened at one point to return to Turkey empty-handed.

He eventually got what he wanted, after what diplomats say was some typically defensive and edgy Turkish negotiating. Yet to a degree that few European leaders may have appreciated, Erdogan was the first Turkish prime minister for many years to be almost as relaxed on Cyprus as they were.

Checking out

A small example of Erdogan's singularity occurred during Turkish television's non-stop and generally excellent coverage of the summit. It showed how different he is from his predecessors, especially the imperious and temperamental Bulent Ecevit, the grand old man of Turkish politics.

As he left his hotel on Friday, Erdogan shook hands and had a conversation with an apparently Turkish bellboy (Brussels is home to a sizeable Turkish community). One woman watching in Ankara turned from the TV and declared: "Ecevit would never have done that."

Capital idea

Erdogan will have to survive in politics a long time in order to chair an EU summit. But if Turkey survives what is sure to be a gruelling accession process, Ankara will one day come to host all manner of grand ministerial meetings.

Sadly, the Turkish capital lacks the architecture of Rome, the parks of London and the restaurants of Paris.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, selected the Anatolian village as capital of his republic, he hired a German architect to plan the government quarter and the city's expansion.

All in vain. Ankara is still a village - only it now has 4m inhabitants. Istanbul's 12m people live among ancient splendour, yet Ankara possesses not a single building of distinction.

Still, the capital's Kizilay Square didn't look half bad on Saturday, bedecked with balloons and flags in Turkish red and European blue. But since it will be at least a decade before it hosts any formal EU gathering, there's plenty of time for improvement. Vincent Boland

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