- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The European Union and Turkey began talks early today that could give the EU its first Muslim member after last-minute lobbying from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Austria’s dropping of its previous objections.

Although full membership is not expected for more than a decade, partly because of the skepticism among European voters, it would extend the union’s borders to Syria, Iraq and Iran.

“We have reached a historic point,” Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said in Ankara.

But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was more cautious, saying that the road “will be long and difficult” and that “accession, as for every country, is neither guaranteed nor automatic.”

Mr. Gul commented shortly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government accepted a framework document agreed to by the 25 EU members earlier in the day.

Before flying to Luxembourg to join the EU foreign ministers for the formal start of the accession talks early this morning, Mr. Gul spoke about the “intense diplomacy” that Miss Rice, as well as United Nations and Arab officials, had waged.

Miss Rice called Mr. Erdogan yesterday morning and urged him to accept the EU document, said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

“This is something that she thought was important to do at this time — to reach out to Turkish officials, to reiterate U.S. support,” Mr. McCormack said.

Miss Rice initiated the call in part at the request of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, after an issue with Cyprus threatened to derail the agreement, some diplomats said.

The EU treaty requires that countries support fellow members in their bids to join other international organizations. This means that, once an EU member, Turkey would have to support Cyprus if it decides to seek NATO membership.

Turkey refuses to recognize Cyprus, which joined the EU last year, and is the only country that supports a renegade Turkish Cypriot state on the divided island.

Ankara initially refused to give the required EU promise, but Miss Rice assured Mr. Erdogan that he should not worry about Cyprus, U.S. officials said. Foreign diplomats even suggested that the secretary hinted that Washington would not allow Cyprus into NATO.

Miss Rice also called Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and asked him not to bring up the issue.

“There was a brief discussion about our point of view that EU processes should not be brought into NATO decision-making processes,” Mr. McCormack said.

Another serious hurdle that was cleared yesterday was Austria’s long-time objection to giving Turkey full EU membership, mainly because of the fear that it would mean too much Muslim influence in Europe.

Diplomats were quoted by wire reports as saying that Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik had relented, accepting language in the negotiating rules that states unambiguously that “the shared objective of the negotiations is [Turkey’s] accession.”

Turkey has been an associate EU member since 1963. Enthusiasm about the union’s expansion has waned lately, capped by the rejection of the proposed EU constitution by French and Dutch voters earlier this year.

But the United States has been a strong advocate of Turkey’s membership.

“We have been quite open and transparent in our diplomatic, as well as rhetorical support, for Turkey beginning this process,” Mr. McCormack said.

“This goes back several years,” he said. “At the same time that we have done that, we have also made it very clear that this is an EU process and a decision for Turkey and the European Union member states to make.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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