Brussels, 13 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Decisions made at this week's winter summit will have a profound effect on the European Union's relations with Turkey.
EU officials are acutely aware of what's at stake when they gather in Brussels on 16 and 17 December.
On 10 December, the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, met in Brussels with Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Erdogan. Afterward, Francoise le Bail, Barroso's spokeswoman, told reporters the EU is straining to reach a consensus.
"It is very clear that this meeting happens at a very crucial point of the negotiation, and it is very clear that the [EU] presidency is making its best effort at trying to find a consensus for next week," Le Bail said.
The absence of a clear EU position can be attributed to differences on three key issues: the start date for accession talks, their final objective, and Greek Cyprus
No one doubts the EU will approve opening accession talks. However, whether Ankara can accept that offer will depend on how EU governments address those three issues.
The most important one is the start date for talks. A group of countries led by France fears that launching talks early could turn their publics against ratifying the new EU constitution next year.
The Eurobarometer published in Brussels last week shows that a majority of people in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, and France oppose further EU enlargement. No specific questions were asked about Turkey, but that country is widely seen as the most controversial of current candidates.
Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, representing the current EU presidency, said today that the poll figures would not decisively affect the summit debate on Turkey.
"I think what counts in the end is what the prime ministers and the heads of states will decide on Thursday and Friday [16 and 17 December]," Bot said. "I have the feeling that we will reach a consensus at the end of the week."
Turkey has made it clear it wants a fixed start date for accession talks. A late date, in the second half of 2005, is seen by Ankara as preferable to having to wait for another summit to settle the issue.
No draft of the EU summit conclusions has mentioned a date yet and officials say the issue will be decided at the summit dinner on 16 December.
A related issue is the stated objective of talks. The most recent EU draft quotes the European Commission verdict in October, which concluded that the talks would be an "open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand."
A majority of people in Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Finland, and France oppose further EU enlargement.
However, this wording is considered subject to change. France and Austria seek to specify that the talks could result in a "privileged partnership," not necessarily full membership.
Today, Bot said the Dutch presidency believes full membership must be the objective of negotiations.
"Turkey is a candidate member and that explains what we are aiming for," Bot said. "Turkey is also aiming for membership and that would be the objective of negotiations. But we will see what will happen in between -- we will be discussing that item extensively today, and I hope on Thursday and Friday."
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer today threw Berlin's weight behind Bot's position.
Fischer was quoted by news agencies as saying that the aim of talks must be membership, and that "any watering down of that aim would, in my view, lead to an interruption in the successful reform process in Turkey."
The third issue, finally, is Cyprus.
New EU member Nicosia, threatening to use its veto right, has long demanded that Ankara recognize its Greek-community government before accession talks can begin.
But that demand appears to have been relaxed in recent days. Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou suggested in Brussels today that his country might be satisfied if Turkey extends the so-called Ankara agreement, on which its relations with the EU are based, to all new member states, including Cyprus.
"We do hope that the conclusions will reflect the Turkish obligation toward Cyprus with respect to the protocol amending the Ankara agreement, but also with normalization of relations," Iacovou said. "We hope our partners will support that Cypriot ambition."
Observers have suggested that Turkey would be ready to amend the Ankara agreement, a move that would amount to tacit recognition of Cyprus.
Still, all such decisions will depend in the end on what the EU summit offers Turkey -- beginning with a start date for entry talks and a clear objective for their final outcome.