THAT SMALL portion of the media not obsessed with Cherie Blair has been rhubarbing about how 'historic' last weekend's European Union (EU) summit in Copenhagen was. It was in a way, but not primarily because the EU has finally decided to expand to incorporate ten new member states, mainly relatively poor countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
What really mattered at Copenhagen was a country which is neither a current member of the EU nor a candidate member - Turkey. For many years now, successive Turkish governments have been campaigning to join the EU. They weren't able to get to the starter's gate. This was partly for good reasons, such as the Turkish state's appalling human rights record, particularly towards the Kurdish minority in the south east.
But it was also for bad ones - like racist hostility, especially in Germany, towards Turkish immigrants. Recently the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, argued that Turkey is simply not part of Europe and therefore shouldn't be allowed to join the EU.
Giscard, who is currently chairing the convention charged with drawing up a new European constitution, is not a marginal figure. But in the past few weeks the debate has changed fundamentally. George W Bush and his administration launched a vigorous campaign aimed at pressuring the EU to put Turkish membership onto the fast track.
The US initiative is based on strategic considerations. Turkey, one of the biggest military powers in the Middle East, has long been a key member of NATO. Turkey's strategic position has become, if anything, more important since 11 September. Turkish airbases and other military support will be essential in any US attack on Iraq.
The Islamist Justice and Development Party recently won a landslide victory in the Turkish parliamentary elections. The Turkish military, self proclaimed guardians of Turkey's secular state, overthrew the last Islamist government. So the Justice and Development Party leader, Yayyip Erdogan, has been working hard to persuade both the generals and the Western powers that his government will pursue a safely pro-Western course.
EU membership became a symbol of the acceptance of Turkey under Erdogan into the Western capitalist bloc. So Washington pushed hard to make the EU set an early date for talks on Turkey's accession.
In particular, Bush demanded that the EU relax the so called Copenhagen membership criteria, which are supposed to make tough demands on would - be entrants' treatment of human rights, press freedom, and the rights of ethnic minorities.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote to EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer on the eve of the Copenhagen summit. He warned that if they didn't set an early date for Turkish entry this would prove right those who claimed there was an inevitable 'clash of civilisations' between Islam and the Christian West.
The hard sell backfired. The letter infuriated Patten and Fischer. Turkish threats to boycott German goods also caused widespread anger. At the summit itself, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi, leaders of the pro-American right wing of the EU, found themselves isolated when they supported Bush's demands for early entry negotiations with Turkey.
A bloc headed by France and Germany insisted on putting off talks for at least two years. Short-term political considerations were a factor in this outcome.
Both German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and French president Jacques Chirac openly admitted that they were worried about the advantage that fast-track Turkish membership would give the racist right in the next elections in their countries.
But the row also revealed much deeper tensions in the Western capitalist bloc. The US has long had a changeable attitude towards the EU. The recent expansion of the EU into Central and Eastern Europe was strongly supported by the Clinton administration as part of a strategy of expanding the influence of the US-led Western capitalist bloc.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, an architect of this policy, called Europe 'America's essential geopolitical bridgehead on the Eurasian continent'. Washington likes the EU only so long as it remains firmly subordinate - what Brzezinski describes as 'an American protectorate'. Schröder's Red-Green coalition is still reluctant to support the US's war with Iraq. The transatlantic tensions are reflected within the EU. France and Germany have reasserted their position as the leading European powers at the last two summits.
And Tony Blair, far from being at the heart of Europe, is seen as the leader of a pro-American fifth column. 'United Europe', like Western capitalism itself, is what Karl Marx once called a band of hostile brothers.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx. It is available from Bookmarks - phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com