Historic breakthrough: way clear for Turkey to join EU
Turkey's 41-year-wait to begin talks about joining the European Union ended yesterday when it accepted an historic offer to launch EU membership negotiations next year. But tough conditions were set.
After a day of frantic negotiation and brinkmanship, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, agreed to start negotiations after an offer hailed as a gesture to the Islamic world. Detailed discussion on membership, which many believed could never happen, will start on 3 October next year, under the British presidency of the EU.
But the EU stressed that the talks, expected to last at least a decade, may not succeed, and imposed tougher conditions on Turkey than in any previous expansion. These include stipulations that Turks could be banned indefinitely from working in EU countries.
Last night Austria joined France in saying that it would not ratify membership for Ankara without a referendum, raising new doubts about Ankara's chances of ever joining because any nation could veto Turkish accession.
But yesterday, worries about admitting a poor, mainly Muslim country of 70 million, whose borders stretch to those of Iraq, Iran and Syria, were overriden. Despite popular opposition in France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, EU leaders decided the risk of saying no to Turkey was greater than that of bringing it into their club.
Ankara first knocked at Europe's door in 1963 when the six founder members of the EU agreed an aid and trade agreement with Turkey, defining it as a European country.
Last night Tony Blair, who attended all the crucial meetings which thrashed out the deal and a long-time supporter of Turkish membership, welcomed the ground-breaking agreement. "It is an historic event," the Prime Minister said as he left a two-day summit in Brussels. "It shows that those who believe there is a fundamental clash of civilisations between Christians and Muslims are wrong. That is of fundamental importance for the future peace and prosperity of my country and the rest of the world."
Mr Erdogan emerged from a day of difficult discussions to say: "It would be wrong to say we got 100 per cent of what we wanted, but I can say we succeeded. We are at a point where we are getting the returns for 41 years of efforts."
And Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said the agreement with Turkey was "a new beginning for Europe and for Turkey".
The congratulatory rhetoric could not disguise huge difficulties in clinching the deal which nearly fell apart over the vexed issue of Cyprus. Ankara nearly walked away from the agreement after being asked to sign a pledge to extend a customs agreement to the countries that joined the EU in May, including Cyprus, because this was seen as implicit recognition of the status of the divided island.
The objective of the talks is full Turkish membership. But, at the insistence of countries sceptical about Turkey's bid, the text also stressed that negotiations are "an open-ended process, the outcome of which cannot be guaranteed beforehand". If talks fail, the document continued, the country will be "fully anchored in the European structures through the strongest possible bond". That keeps the option of an alternative form of relationship with Turkey, short of membership.