ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The license plate on Yunus Danacioglu’s Turkish-made car carries an empty blue band waiting for European Union stars like those adorning automobile plates from Ireland to Bulgaria.
The only difference between his plate and others in Istanbul is that he has covered that band with a red and white Turkish flag, featuring a crescent and star, to show his loyalties.
“What do I think of the European Union?” Danacioglu, 20, said in a throng of Istanbul traffic. “Make Istanbul the capital of the European Union and then I’d support it.”
Danacioglu, who works as a taxi driver, says it is more important to be proud of being Turkish than to pretend to be European, and surveys suggest many others in Turkey’s huge and growing youth population feel the same.
That bodes poorly for Turkey’s already troubled EU accession bid as a study in May showed that young people, once touted by Turkish politicians as an asset for aging Europe, are the group where opposition to joining the European bloc is strongest.
“Anti-EU attitudes are most prevalent in our youth,” said Yilmaz Esmer, a political science professor at Bahcesehir University, whose study showed 32 percent of youth against joining the EU, a level higher than any other age group.
Of Turkey’s 72 million people, more than half are under the age of 30 and that proportion will increase for the next 20-25 years, say demographers.
“Our youth seems to be less Western-oriented, more nationalistic and as religious as their older counterparts, which is due to our schools, our textbooks,” Esmer said.
A military coup in 1980 rewrote many of the rules for Turkey’s educational system. It boosted the role of the military in the curricula and mandated religion courses, helping bring religion under state control in the predominantly Muslim country.
Turkey’s young people are also suffering the most from its deep recession. The economy contracted by 13.8 percent in the first quarter of the year, and nearly one in four young men and women are jobless.
Unlike other EU candidate countries, especially former communist bloc countries whose youth saw the EU as a way to break from the past, Turkey’s youth are more likely to want to see Turkey go it alone.
The education system, which has been criticized for crystallizing nationalism and religious consciousness, contains national security courses taught by military officers as well as religion classes that focus almost exclusively on Sunni Islam.
Turkish textbooks have also been blamed for fanning nationalism, in their accounts of the war of independence when Turkish soldiers fought Italian, French, British and Greek forces to reclaim former Ottoman territory.
“It’s still an issue of trust for Turkey,” said Alp Aslan, 20, who plans to study construction engineering next year. “I don’t think a lot of young people trust the European Union because these are the same countries that were trying to grab swathes of Turkey not even 100 years ago.”
Many of Turkey’s young men and women became politically conscious not during the years of EU enthusiasm that led to the opening of Ankara’s accession talks in 2005, but in the subsequent atmosphere of “enlargement fatigue” that saw some EU members discredit the idea of Turkey’s membership.
Leaders in France and Germany want a “privileged partnership” for Turkey rather than outright membership. In the country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim, the media portray this as an example of anti-Turkishness and double standards.
“We have given so much to the European Union already in terms of reforms and we’ve seen nothing in return. France and Germany don’t want us and they never will,” said Aslan, summing up a widely held viewed among Turks.
Brussels wants Turkey to limit the power of the army, improve free speech, grant more rights to minorities and adopt and implement 80,000 pages of European laws and regulations ranging from the environment to food safety. These reforms are painful and require sustained support from public opinion.
Support for the EU is still high among those who see EU-backed reforms in the relatively poor, conservative country as a way forward on democratic issues.
“I want Turkey in the European Union because Turkey has a long way to go in terms of learning how to deal with its minorities, to respect freedom of speech and thought,” said Hayri Ince, 24, a social theory student, at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
But Aygen Aytac of the United Nations Development Programme, who wrote a report last year on Turkish youth, said that without swift investment in Turkey’s educational system the conditions that contribute to rising nationalism, anti-EU sentiment and youth unemployment will be aggravated in the coming years.
University education is often seen as a modifying factor, offsetting the more nationalistic tones of the country’s primary and secondary curricula.
“If you don’t invest in those people, if you can’t give them the jobs and educate them, the youth won’t mean much besides problems,” said Aytac.
For the 12 million people around college age, Turkey has 94 state universities that most families can afford. Few can afford the high tuition fees at Turkey’s 45 private colleges.
Editing by Sara Ledwith