- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

ANKARA, Turkey — Thousands of cheering supporters showered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with confetti yesterday as he returned to Ankara from a European summit, vowing to press forward with reforms and the country’s bid to join the bloc.

The European Union on Friday offered to begin talks aimed at bringing Turkey into the EU. The long-coveted invitation came despite widespread European misgivings about welcoming a poor, highly populated Muslim nation — and despite continued differences over Cyprus, Turkey’s longtime adversary and an EU member since May.

The talks will begin Oct. 3, 2005, the beginning of a process that could take years and could transform the political and social landscape of both parties.

But joyous supporters presented Mr. Erdogan with flowers at Ankara’s Esenboga airport, and some 5,000 gathered in near-freezing weather to greet the prime minister in the city’s central square.

“Turkey has turned the critical corner,” Mr. Erdogan told the crowd, which waved flags and balloons with Turkish and EU flags. “Our road is open — you should not have any doubt about it.”

“From now on, democracy will have a different meaning and human rights and freedoms will be practiced in a more meaningful manner. The economy will perform better,” Mr. Erdogan said. “By this, Turkey will take its rightful place among modern and civilized countries.”

EU leaders have imposed tough conditions on Turkish membership. Turkey must recognize Cyprus before the talks open in October and must show progress on Kurdish rights, improving the economy and limiting the military’s influence in politics. Ankara is also expected to treat ethnic and religious minorities equally.

Greece expressed satisfaction yesterday over the EU decision to start entry talks with Turkey and said it would lead its neighbor to recognize Cyprus.

The war-divided island has been split into the Greek Cypriot-controlled south and the occupied north since Turkey invaded in 1974 in the wake of a short-lived coup by supporters of a union with Greece. The breakaway state in the northern third of the island is only recognized by Turkey, which has 40,000 troops there.

EU membership has been a Turkish dream for decades and most Turkish newspapers were ecstatic. “We Succeeded,” headlined yesterday’s edition in Hurriyet. Sabah blared: “European Revolution.”

“Our road ahead is longer and is more difficult than the road we’ve passed,” wrote Tufan Turenc, a columnist in Hurriyet. “But we don’t have any other option to reach full membership because the interest of Turkish society is in joining the European family.”

However, nationalist newspapers were furious, arguing the terms were too harsh. “Dishonored,” the Yeni Cag newspaper said.

If the talks succeed, Turkey would become the largest EU member in 10 years, surpassing Germany. But its per capita income is roughly one-third of the average of longtime EU member states, requiring far-reaching economic reforms.

EU officials said the talks would be open-ended and without a guarantee of eventual EU membership. Opposition leaders said that gave Turkey little chance of success.

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