EU and Turkey agree on talks
LUXEMBOURG Turkey and the European Union on Monday agreed to open membership talks, after a tense diplomatic dance that illustrated all the problems of their partnership.
After two days of dramatic negotiations, European foreign ministers agreed on terms for talks to start, overcoming Austria's insistence that the EU offer Turkey the possibility of a status less than full membership. By evening, after hours of discussion with Ankara, Turkey agreed to the framework proffered for what are expected to be tough talks over the next decade.
"Agreement has now been reached that negotiations on Turkey's accession to the European Union can and will begin in the very near future," said Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, who was leading the talks.
"This is a truly historic day for Europe and for the whole of the international community," he said. Straw said Turkey's entry into the EU "will bring a strong secular state that happens to have a Muslim majority into the EU, proof that we can live, work and prosper together."
Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul of Turkey headed to Luxembourg in advance of Turkey's membership negotiations.
"We reached agreement; I am going to Luxembourg," Gul told reporters, according to Reuters.
The agreement means Europe keeps its promise, made last December, to open talks with Turkey.
The talks, a momentous step in Turkey's four-decade quest for membership, are expected to be long and unpredictable, buffeted by Europe's lingering wariness about embracing Turkey, a vast Muslim nation of more than 70 million, and by Turkey's ability and willingness to adopt the EU's laws and standards.
The United States helped pave the way for agreement when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to reassure him that the beginning of membership talks would not compromise Turkey's role in NATO. The United States has long been a supporter of Turkey's bid to join the EU.
A State Department official who insisted on anonymity said Rice had telephoned Erdogan and Gul and had also spoken to the government of Cyprus.
"We have always encouraged accession," the official said. "We are not involved in the process but we can express our interests."
The possibility of opening negotiations with Turkey had been thrown into doubt earlier this summer by Turkey's refusal to recognize Cyprus, which joined the EU in its last expansion, in May 2004. Countries like France objected that talks with Turkey could not go ahead while it refused to recognize an EU member country.
Gul had been waiting in Turkey all day for a sign that European governments had come to an agreement on Turkey's future with the EU.
By the end of the day, Austria appeared to have dropped its insistence that the EU offer Turkey an alternative status that stopped short of full membership. For two days, Austria, which has a population of just over eight million, had held up the progress of negotiations with the 24 other countries in the Union, which has a combined population of 450 million.
Austria dropped its objection to a statement that the shared objective of the negotiations was accession by Turkey into the EU.
In return, Austria demanded robust assurances that the EU could halt Turkey's membership process if the Union was not ready to absorb another country, especially one the size of Turkey.
The compromise appeared to be acceptable to Turkey, which had said it would not begin talks unless the goal was full membership.
A second problem emerged Monday when Turkey objected to conditions urging it to adopt EU positions in international organizations like NATO. Turkey feared that this meant it could not block any future application by Cyprus to join NATO.
But diplomats said Turkey had been reassured when the EU agreed to make a separate declaration saying that Turkey's security concerns would be taken into account.
The final agreement between European nations came after a day of much gloom in Luxembourg that a deal might not be possible. Straw who led the talks because Britain currently holds the EU presidency, talked of walking "on the edge of a precipice" during a day of high diplomatic tension.
The mood surrounding the Turkey talks brightened considerably after the pronouncement by Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the United Nations international war crimes tribunal, said for the first time that Croatia was "cooperating fully" in catching Ante Gotovina, a fugitive indicted as a war criminal. Austria is a strong supporter of Croatia's own bid to join the EU, and Del Ponte's report opens the prospect for Croatia's membership negotiations to start soon.
Straw, who had pleaded forcefully for Europe to open its doors to Turkey as a large Muslim nation, began the day with a warning that a positive outcome was not certain.
"We are at a difficult stage in these negotiations," he said after his first morning talks with Ursula Plassnik, the Austrian foreign minister. "I can't say what the outcome will be."
His gloom was a result of the demands by Austria's conservative government, reflecting widespread reservations in Austria about bringing Turkey into the EU.
The rest of the EU warned that rejecting Turkey at this stage would damage the Union's interests and hurt Turkey. EU ministers were under pressure to show that the Union was capable of diplomatic success following the failure to get a European constitution, capped by further bitter disagreement over the budget, still outstanding.
Dermot Ahern, Irish foreign minister, told reporters here: "At this juncture, to fail to conclude these negotiations does show a clear sign of paralysis." He said the EU needed to show more leadership and not bend to the whim of public opinion.
Europeans already in the Union have shown a marked reluctance since the last expansion, when 10 countries were admitted, to accept more nations as members.
Their reservations were met after the EU issued a joint declaration that Turkey must recognize Cyprus before it can ever join the EU.
Turkey first applied for membership in 1959.
In 1963, the Ankara Agreement foresaw ever closer trade and economic ties between Europe and Turkey, but only in 1999, at a meeting in Helsinki, was it officially recognized as a candidate state.
Under the agreement reached last December, negotiations were to have opened Monday.
The push to have Turkey join reflects increasingly strong trading ties. Turkey is the EU's seventh biggest trading partner and sends about 54 percent of its exports to the EU.
Financial markets in Turkey fell markedly Monday as it became clear that difficulties would plague the membership talks until the very end.
EU to open talks with Serbia
The European Union foreign ministers decided Monday to open economic talks with Serbia and Montenegro as a precursor to possible membership talks, The Associated Press reported from Belgrade.
Serbia welcomed the move and promised to capture war crimes suspects, a top precondition for the eventual entry.
The EU's foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, granted the mandate after they agreed that Serbia and Montenegro was ready to negotiate a Stabilization and Association Agreement, which would promote economic and trade relations and aim to regulate issues such as migration and capital movements.
They said, however, that Serbia's hopes of joining the 25-member bloc depended on the extradition of all war crimes suspects, especially the Bosnian Serb fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, and undertaking substantial economic, political and judicial reforms.
Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia said Monday that his government "is ready to fulfill those obligations."
"This is of huge importance for our country," Kostunica said.
Serbian officials have suggested 2012 as a possible date for entry into the EU.
The Stabilization and Association Agreement talks will probably start soon, Serbia and Montenegro's foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, said. In a symbolic gesture, they are expected to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Slobodan Milosevic's ouster from power in October 2000.
Promising the extradition of the top suspects to the United Nations tribunal in The Hague, Draskovic said that "the war crimes hurdle could be overcome in two months at the most."
Croatia and Macedonia have already signed such agreements, which were designed to draw Balkan nations closer to the European mainstream after the violence of the 1990s and to prepare them for possible EU membership.
However, many in Western Europe fear further expansions will over-stretch the EU.