Turks step closer to EU with referendum vote, but membership is still a glimmer

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turks took a step closer to Europe by voting for constitutional changes aimed at bringing the country into line with European standards of democracy. Yet it was also a massive show of confidence in an Islamic-rooted government whose closer ties with Iran and hostility toward Israel have caused dismay in the West.

The tension between these strands of Turkey's world outlook, one pushing west and the other east, reflects the complexity of a country that defies definition and remains a puzzle, an increasingly confident one at that, to its allies.

Its biggest city, Istanbul, spans the Asian and European continents. The constitution is secular; the national leaders are devout Muslims. A NATO member with troops in Afghanistan, albeit in non-combat roles, Turkey became a champion of Muslim anger over Israel's war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Turkey has transformed its unique circumstances into opportunity, amassing regional clout on the back of its strategic location between east and west. Now the approval of constitutional change is likely to invigorate a leadership, poised for elections next year, that has tussled for years with traditional power elites that warn Turkey's secular principles are in peril.

In a referendum Sunday, some 58 percent of voters approved a package of 26 amendments to the constitution crafted after a 1980 military coup, making the military more accountable to civilian courts, backing gender equality and other citizens' rights and lifting immunity from prosecution of the coup leaders.

Europe applauded the result, even though Turkey's bid to join the European Union has been reduced to a glimmer, dogged by opposition from France and Germany, Turkish skepticism and a dispute over the divided island of Cyprus, an EU member.

"These reforms are a step in the right direction as they address a number of long-standing priorities in Turkey's efforts towards fully complying with the accession criteria," EU Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fuele said in a statement.

He said their impact would depend on implementation, and that Europe supported the Turkish government's plans to work toward an entirely new constitution in the civilian mold.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle welcomed the outcome, saying it showed that Turkey was looking toward Europe. He said Monday that no false promises should be made regarding its EU membership bid, "but nobody should exclude or snub an important country that is visibly on track to modernizing itself."

For all the encouragement, Turkey has grown frustrated since accession talks began in 2005, and its insistence that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful raised concerns in the West that it was turning away from Cold War-era allegiances. The deterioration of Turkey's ties with Israel, culminating in the uproar over Israel's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid ship from Turkey, added to the worry.

"Turkey has always done its bit for the EU process," said Nevzat Pakdil, a ruling party lawmaker and deputy parliament speaker. "But certain European countries have adopted a stance against Turkey. However, the EU needs Turkey. Turkey will continue to fulfill its duties."

Turkey has strong support for its bid from some nations in Europe, including Britain. But key European leaders fear an influx of migrants and wonder about admitting a huge Muslim nation into a bloc that has struggled to integrate its Muslim minorities.

Within Turkey, the opposition sought to portray the referendum as part of a creeping plot to suffocate secular institutions, citing amendments that could allow government supporters to appoint judges and prosecutors close to the ruling party. The head of a state body that appoints those officials expressed concern.

"We would have wanted that the principle of the supremacy of the law not be harmed, that the judiciary be more independent," said Kadir Ozbek, the acting head of the Judges and Prosecutors' Higher Board. "The point we are at today is one that is more backward than yesterday."

Government backers counter that the country is under the yoke of rigid notions of secularism and nationalism that must be softened so that democratic rights, including religious freedom, can flourish. Whatever Turkey's direction, or directions, in the years ahead, the result of the referendum was a hit in at least two arenas of Turkish life on Monday morning.

The stock market jumped 2 percent to an all-time high in trading before slipping, indicating investor confidence in the prospect of political stability. And human rights activists petitioned courts in three major Turkish cities to prosecute the elderly engineers of the coup that curbed political chaos but led to a wave of arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings.

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Associated Press Writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Raf Casert in Brussels and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to this report.