- The Washington Times - Friday, December 17, 2004

BRUSSELS — The European Union and Turkey struck a historic deal yesterday to start talks next year on admitting the populous Muslim nation to the bloc after last-minute haggling over Ankara’s relationship with EU member Cyprus.

The 25 EU leaders agreed to begin membership negotiations with Turkey on Oct. 3, 2005, but in a nod to deeply skeptical public opinion in much of Western Europe, they said talks would be open-ended with no guaranteed outcome.

The deal, seen by backers as a bridge builder between Europe and the Islamic world, followed lengthy wrangling that ended only when Turkey said it would sign a key protocol but insisted this did not mean recognition of the Greek-Cypriot government.

“We have been writing history today,” Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told reporters as EU leaders toasted the deal with champagne and an orange juice for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We believe that the EU should become a power which would really contribute to world peace,” said Mr. Erdogan, who at one stage threatened to walk out over demands that he recognize the Greek-Cypriot government.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Turkey’s strongest allies, said offering the large Muslim democracy the prospect of EU membership was a signal to the Islamic world: “It shows that those who believe there is some fundamental clash in civilizations between Christian and Muslim are actually wrong, that we can work together and we can cooperate together.”

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said: “A Turkey that is firmly anchored in Europe and sharing European values will be a positive force for prosperity and democracy.”

The summit ran into overtime with the European Union’s insistence that Turkey act toward recognizing the Greek-Cypriot government, which Ankara has rejected until there is a settlement for the divided island.

The European Union dropped a humiliating demand that Turkey initial the pact immediately yesterday. Mr. Erdogan had threatened to walk out after Cyprus demanded a written commitment.

Eventually Turkey pledged unilaterally to sign a protocol extending its EU association agreement to 10 states that joined the bloc in May, including Cyprus, before it starts entry talks, while insisting that did not mean recognition.

Cyprus, the Mediterranean island divided into Greek and Turkish sectors, has eluded 30 years of peace efforts. In April, Greek Cypriots rejected a United Nations plan to reunite the island, which Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots accepted.

The European Union also agreed yesterday to invite Bulgaria and Romania to join in 2007, taking its membership to 27 nations, and to open entry talks with Croatia next March.

Mr. Erdogan said Turkey had undergone a “silent revolution” in meeting EU demands for political and economic reform and that its membership, after at least a further decade of negotiations and transformation, could only strengthen the bloc.

But EU leaders still have to overcome hostile public opinion toward the Turkey deal, sealed more than 40 years after Ankara signed an association deal with the bloc.

Opponents say Turkey is too big, too populous, too poor and too culturally different to fit well in the European Union, and that the bloc risks a mass influx of cheap workers and “enlarging itself to death” by extending its borders to Iran, Iraq and Syria.

The EU decision made clear Turkey could not join before 2015, by which time it is projected to have the bloc’s largest population with more than 80 million — surpassing Germany — giving Turkey the most voting power in decision making and the most European Parliament seats.

Austria Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel pledged his country would hold a referendum on Turkey’s entry to the European Union, following France’s lead. Public opinion in Austria, France and several other member states is overwhelmingly opposed to Ankara’s bid.

French President Jacques Chirac said Ankara had made a “marvelous” effort for the European Union but much remained to be done. He noted EU leaders had left open the possibility of failure.

“The opening of negotiations does not, naturally, mean accession. The road will be long and difficult if Turkey is to be able to meet all the conditions necessary to join Europe,” Mr. Chirac told reporters.

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