Wed, Oct 05, 2005 - Page 6 News List

EU begins membership talks with Turkey, at last

AP , BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

Turkish and EU flags are pictured in front of Beyazit Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey yesterday. Turkey and the EU early yesterday opened landmark talks on bringing the country into the 25-nation bloc.

PHOTO: EPA

The European Commission president called the opening of EU membership talks with Turkey yesterday a milestone, but warned the predominantly Muslim nation's entry into the bloc was "neither guaranteed nor automatic."

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul joined his 25 EU counterparts for a middle-of-the-night ceremony to formally open the negotiations, 42 years after Turkey took its first step toward requesting membership.

"Today is a milestone in the relationship between the European Union and Turkey," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said.

It took last-minute wrangling among EU foreign ministers during two days of arduous talks to secure a joint position on opening the negotiations with Ankara. The talks are expect to last at least a decade.

Austria had demanded that Turkey be granted a special partnership deal, not full membership, raising last-minute doubts about letting the country join as a full-fledged member.

"Every enlargement that has taken place within the European Union has made both the existing and the new member states stronger and more prosperous," Straw said. "I'm in absolutely no doubt that the benefits will follow from this enlargement and bring a strong secular state which happens to have a Muslim majority into the European Union."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agreed.

"It's a historic step Europe has won today; it's a big chance for both sides," Fischer told reporters.

The agreement and the ceremony with Gul, however brief, was a rare point of light in a gloomy year for the EU.

A proposed EU constitution was shot down in French and Dutch referendums in May. The EU economy is in the doldrums, an ill-tempered mid-June summit left the EU without a budget for 2007 to 2013 and last month's German elections cast doubts on the political direction of the EU's biggest economy.

Failure to start entry talks with Turkey would have been another blow to the credibility of the EU, which made Turkey an associate member in 1963 with the prospect of future membership.

Barroso said that beyond negotiating entry into the union, Ankara must also convince Europeans it is ready to join. Several nations have said they could hold referendums on Turkey's membership application.

"Turkey must win the hearts and minds of European citizens. They are the ones who at the end of the day will decide about Turkey's membership," Barroso said.

"Accession, as for every country, is neither guaranteed nor automatic," he said.

The negotiations over Turkey got off to a bad start on Sunday. The EU foreign ministers labored late into the night to try persuading Austria to drop its last-minute objections to Ankara's bid for full EU membership.

Vienna relented late Monday afternoon, paving the way for the EU to send its terms on membership to Ankara. Turkey approved the terms of the negotiations and sent a delegation to Luxembourg.

"We passed the most important phase on the way to reaching our 40-year goal and the founding principles of our republic," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara. "The document is satisfactory. I am happy to say that common sense prevailed."

All 25 EU members had agreed in December to launch entry talks with Turkey on Oct. 3. But last week, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik suggested a "privileged partnership" for Turkey instead, questioning the EU's ability to absorb the nation of 70 million people and invoking concerns among Europeans.

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