Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is perhaps the most intriguing, enigmatic world leader of his generation. His legacy will almost certainly be an utterly transformed Turkey, no longer dominated by the military and clearly having shed the aggressive secularism Ataturk so famously set in train nearly a century ago. And yet, no one can say for sure what his agenda is without resorting ultimately to ideologically driven portraits. Never has such an activist politician been so difficult to grasp.

Is he an arch-Islamist autocrat, determined to force Islamic mores on unwilling Turks? Or is he an exemplar of Islam's marriage with democracy; a reformer who has established civilian rule, expanded civil rights and handed cultural rights to the oppressed Kurdish minority?

The truth is it's a confusing picture. His decade of democratic reforms in a frequently authoritarian nation must stand as a remarkable achievement. But last month he found his government engulfed in a monstrous corruption scandal that has claimed four ministers and resulted in more than 20 arrests. His response has been to attempt a purge of the police force and the judiciary of disloyal elements. This naturally invites strident charges of, among other things, trashing judicial independence.

At the intersection of these contradictory images of Erdogan lies one enduring issue: Europe. Erdogan's democratic reforms were delivered as he pushed for Turkey's inclusion in the EU. But those negotiations have been stalled for 3½ years now, and this has roughly coincided with his more autocratic turn.

Turkey has begun looking very much like it is facing east. Erdogan's party has suggested several times that it might abandon its EU bid, and instead join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation dominated by Russia and China. Meanwhile Turkey's stance towards Israel has cooled as its relationship with Iran warms. Senior government members make frequent cultural overtures like the deputy speaker who recently criticised "pro-West" practices such as co-education.

All of which makes this week utterly fascinating. For the first time in five years, Erdogan finds himself in Brussels. And for the first time in more than three, Turkey is again negotiating with Europe. If you believe that Turkey is more likely to steer in a transparent, democratic direction when it is seeking EU admission than when it is not, these talks are also very important, and offer hope that Turkey's recent authoritarian slide might be arrested.

But in so many ways the timing is bizarre and disastrous. Erdogan goes to these talks in a weakened position. Europe is decidedly unimpressed by his judicial purge, for which he remains defiantly unapologetic. Meanwhile, the head of Turkey's business association is now saying the country is in danger of becoming a "police state", and perhaps most symbolically, corruption allegations have forced Erdogan to sack his EU minister. When you add the fact that Turkey has lately shown no apparent interest in joining the EU, there's a blindingly obvious question to ask about all this: do these negotiations have any hope at all?

It's easy to argue they don't. In fact it's easy to argue they're a charade. The argument runs that Erdogan doesn't really need the EU any more because while European support was helpful in his agenda to establish civilian rule, that battle has now been won. Europe has rejected Turkey when it has had better democratic credentials than it does now, so how could it be remotely well disposed to Turkish accession?

If that's right, it's a pity for both sides. Europe, frankly, could use a sizeable and growing economy at the moment. But that growth is now slowing, and this is where Erdogan has much to gain. EU membership would open access to European markets, perhaps giving him the injection he needs.

How seriously these talks proceed will tell us much about the parties. Clearly they will help Turks decide whether Europe will ever have any intention of letting them into the club. But they'll also tell us something about how Erdogan sees the world and Turkey's place within it. And in that way, this episode might just help us understand who Erdogan is.

Waleed Aly is an Age columnist. He hosts Drive on ABC Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.