LONDON — Where does Europe end and Asia begin? The question is of more than academic interest because the answer will determine what sort of entity the European Union is to be. There are those who talk about “the final completion” of the EU as though a line can be carefully drawn between the states of Europe and their eastern neighbors and that this would settle for all time the question of who should be members and who should be left out.

But anyone standing here in the great and ancient city of Istanbul is at once in both Europe and in Asia. This is the European tip of the vast and mainly Muslim nation of Turkey, which stretches deep into the Central Asian heartlands.

The decision has been made by the existing EU members, after much soul-searching, to begin the processes that will bring Turkey into the EU. That step, when and if it takes place (up to 12 years from now), will end the concept of the EU as a containable grouping on the Western end of the Eurasian landmass.

Admitting Turkey raises questions about all the other states immediately neighboring the present EU on its eastern borders. The new Ukraine, fresh from its democratic revolution, is eager to apply. Belarus may not be far behind. Beyond them lie the “stans” of Central Asia: Kazakstan, Uzbekistan and others, which consider themselves as possible candidates. Even the massive Russian Federation has toyed with the idea of applying, arguing that if Turkey, half European and half Asian, can sign up, then Russia is in the same position on a vastly greater scale.

A few days ago the EU opened negotiations for membership with Romania and Bulgaria. Croatia is also at the door, although held back by a dispute over the handling of war criminals. Serbia and war-torn Bosnia will not be far behind.

Negotiations with the Balkan states at least involve nations that by history and geography are clear parts of the European region. Their admission will be complex, but it will be simple compared with the task of bringing in Turkey and the fundamental questions such a move raises.

In effect, the Turkish decision puts paid to the founding fathers’ dream of Europe. This dream, most clearly formulated by Jean Monnet and still much favored by many European idealists — especially by the French and German Europe-builders — was that the EU would form a tightknit Western bloc, bound together on novel principles but sufficiently unified to constitute a real force in the world, with a clear place on the global stage and a definite role as a counterweight to American global dominance.

But an EU that includes Turkey, and states beyond Turkey, cannot possibly operate as a unified force or have a single voice on the world stage. It can be a vast and expanding area of trade liberalization and it can aspire to common values about human rights and democracy. But it cannot really call itself “European” anymore, and it cannot pose as a global power with its own seat at the high tables of world affairs, such as the United Nations and the Group of Eight Summit gatherings, and with its own army and central government.

Embracing Turkey changes everything. The EU, which has come so far in the last 50 years in European garb, is going to need a new label to describe itself.

History provides us with the right one, which is “Eurasia.” This was the ancient concept that welded Europe and Asia together, first under the Mongol emperors in the 13th and then, increasingly, via the huge trade routes to China that awakened European awareness of eastern civilizations and prompted the European voyages of discovery to the east. The Chinese mandarins fatally opted out of the opening up process by scrapping the Ming Dynasty fleet’s of oceangoing ships.

Eurasia is now the best and most accurate description of what lies ahead if the Turkish membership of the EU goes forward and others follow — an interweaving of Europe and much of Asia into a vast liberal and open trading alliance.

It is a prospect that will be strongly resisted by many Western Europeans who see their “core Europe” already diluted by admitting eight more central European countries, plus Cyprus and Malta, and set to be diluted further by Turkey.

These tensions are already evident in the current debates, and forthcoming referendum votes, about the proposed new European Constitution, which has been presented by its progenitors as a necessary device for adapting the EU to present and future enlargement. Its rejection by France would signify deep hostility to the whole enlargement process. And it would send a bitter message to the Turks and others further east that they were not really wanted after all and that the West Europeans preferred to keep themselves to themselves as an integrated (and theoretically Christian), would-be superstate.

So the battle lines are now being increasingly sharply drawn between “Europe” and “Eurasia” as the future grouping which will shape this part of the planet. Istanbul stands symbolically at the heart of this debate — between the vision of a tightly and geographically unified “European” Europe and a much wider and inevitably far looser kind of “Eurasian Union” going deep into Asia.

In the end the wider vision will prevail because communications and information technology now outdate old geographical ties. But the old guard, who want to preserve their Western fortress of Christianity and culture will put up a desperate fight and they are by no means beaten yet.

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