"So this is Europe," says 68-year-old Istanbul resident Nagme Bas. You see on the other side of the water, that's Asia Minor over there. The Black Sea is about 50 kilometers from here. This is the Bosphorus."
On a recent morning shortly after Pope Benedict XVI returned to Italy after four days in Turkey, Bas was weaving in and out of car traffic on his way to the ferry in Besiktas. The pretty seaside neighborhood, in the European half of Istanbul, is where thousands of residents commute daily on an eight-minute ferry ride between Asia and Europe.
"I think now we have an opportunity where Turkey has been taking steps for almost a century now to become closer and more similar to us," former Italian ambassador Francesco Olivieri says. "And I think Europe has a great opportunity to accept and reciprocate that approach."
One can imagine oneself suspended between two continents as one takes the commuter ferry across the Bosphorus to the Uskudar district on the Asian shore.
The Debate In Brussels And In Istanbul
The European Union appears to be growing increasingly negative about Turkey's membership bid. At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels today -- and a two-day summit of heads of state on December 14-15 -- the European Union is expected to decide whether partially to suspend Turkey's membership negotiations amid a dispute over whether Ankara is moving fast enough to recognize Cyprus in accordance with EU demands.
And in Turkey as well, the debate continues about whether the country's future belongs with Europe.
"To tell the truth, I don't want to join the EU," says Tansu, a young laborer commuting on the Besiktas ferry. "Because it looks to me like the conditions are really demanding. I think instead of joining the EU, we should establish a Turkic union with other Turkic countries or an Islamic union. That would be better for Turkey."
Yener, a fanatical fan of the Istanbul soccer team Fenerbahce, agrees.
"We cannot join the EU" he says. "They won't let us in. We do not want to join, anyway. Fenerbahce is the best!"
But university student Gokcen is more optimistic. She says that with patience and positive steps by Turkey, the country has a great chance of eventually joining the EU.
"Of course, joining the EU would be a very good thing for Turkey," Gokcen says. "Hopefully, there will be improvements gradually. A little time. Sixty percent, with improvements it might be 80 percent, but for now it is 60 percent."
Exiting through the ferry turnstiles in Uskudar, Bas makes no secret of his own desire to see Turkey one day join the EU. But like so many Turks these days, he feels European public opinion, at least for now, has turned against his country, as European governments and politicians throw up obstacles to Turkish membership.
"Personally, it's very difficult," Bas says. "There are big problems. The problems are Armenia, and the Kurds, the Aegean Sea, Cyprus -- they ask something everyday. I mean, day by day, ‘We want something' or ‘You do this.'"
History And Commerce
Off the water and onto the streets of Istanbul, the visitor is struck by two main sensations.
One is the city's cultural and historic richness, with landmarks that are living testimony to Istanbul's place as a historic link between Europe and Asia, such as the Ottoman-era Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, once the most important church in eastern Christendom.
The other sensation is the strong commercial pulse that beats at the heart of this metropolis of 15 million people. It's a pulse that European markets would love to tap into and is most evident in the sprawling Grand Bazaar, where tourists from around the world shop for handmade carpets, Anatolian mosaics, jewelry, and other treasures.
A park in Istanbul (epa file photo)
"Price range starts from $100 up to any kind of price," one carpet seller said. "The most expensive rug we have is $120,000 – pure silk, fine quality, 7 by 10 feet [2.3 meters by 3.3 meters]. It's made in Turkey, in a town called Heraclea [the ancient Greek name of today's town of Eregli] about 100 miles [160 kilometers] from Istanbul. Close by."
But despite the widespread use of English, Istanbul has a decidedly non-Western side.
This is Asia, the Muslim world -- a world that some Europeans clearly believe should be kept distinct from their own.
But other Europeans feel just the opposite and argue that Europe is incomplete without Turkey -- albeit that Turkey is geographically in Asia.
A Historic Mission
Francesco Olivieri, a former Italian ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Croatia, says the EU's historic mission has always been to make Europe whole and peaceful. He says that has happened with the EU's incorporation of former nemeses France and Germany.
Now, Olivieri says Europe can resolve its historic conflicts with the former Ottoman Empire, once a leader of the Islamic world, by bringing its secular successor Turkey into the EU.
"If we look at it this way, I think now we have an opportunity where Turkey has been taking steps for almost a century now to become closer and more similar to us," Olivieri says. "And I think Europe has a great opportunity to accept and reciprocate that approach and perhaps bridge that other cleavage that has been the reason for war on both sides of the Mediterranean over some almost 1,400 years."
European leaders this week look likely to partially suspend membership talks with Turkey because of its refusal to trade with or recognize Cyprus. Nonetheless, Turkish leaders say they are far from giving up their European aspirations.
Speaking last week as rumors swirled that negotiations on key membership issues were about to be slowed down or cut off, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "Before, they were talking about a 'train wreck' -- there was no train wreck. Now they're just saying the train has slowed.... We'll continue on our way."
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