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Turkey: EU Agrees To Open Membership Talks With Ankara

  • Ahto Lobjakas --> After 30 hours of intense negotiations, European Union foreign ministers last night agreed to open membership talks with Turkey, bringing to an end a 43-year wait for Ankara. The ministers overcame strong skepticism on the parts of Austria and Cyprus. They also reached accord with Ankara, which needed to fully vet the EU offer before dispatching Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to Luxembourg late last night to formally open the talks.

Luxembourg, 4 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The EU decision on last night gives Turkey -- a overwhelmingly Muslim country of 70 million people -- a realistic chance to one day join the bloc.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw handled the often difficult negotiations on behalf of the EU's current presidency.

Straw announced the decision after it was confirmed that Turkish Foreign Minister Gul had left for Luxembourg shortly before midnight last night. "I'm very pleased to announce that agreement has now been reached that negotiations on Turkish accession to the European Union can and will begin in the very near future," he said. "I hope we can do it before midnight, it might be after midnight, but I think we have met the requirement of the European Council set on the 17 December, reconfirmed in June, that we start the negotiations on the 3 October."

Ankara withheld its consent until yesterday evening, after scrutinizing the EU offer and negotiating final details with
Britain's ambassador to Turkey.

Gul, speaking at a news conference in Luxembourg today, expressed satisfaction with the final deal: "Turkey got what it wanted -- the prospect of full membership. There are no other [alternatives]. Turkey, during the negotiations, will perform well. And I believe that the day will come when a common agreement will be signed."

Austria had asked for wording in the EU decision which would have left in doubt whether the bloc could in the end absorb
Turkey. The EU's so-called "absorption capacity" is a key accession criterion, but one that Turkey did not want overly

By yesterday, Austria had given up on its demand to include in the EU offer a reference to a "privileged partnership," rather than full membership, for Turkey.

Another issue of debate was a paragraph in the EU declaration stating that Turkey must not block EU member states from
joining international organizations. Ankara interpreted this as meaning an opportunity for rival Cyprus to join NATO. A phone call to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice apparently gave Ankara the reassurance its needed.

The same part of the text said Turkey must follow EU foreign-policy decisions. Again, Ankara objected, saying it could find itself subject to unfavorable plans from Cyprus. That issue has apparently been resolved, although details on the agreement are not yet known.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, speaking at today's news conference, said it is now time for Turkey and the EU to put the sometimes rancorous negotiations behind them and look to the future.

"We are starting a new era in our relations with Turkey," he said. "We all know that we have had some challenging weeks and months. Now, we have the chance to have a fresh start and focus on the essentials of the negotiations and start building a better future for Turkey and Europe through rigorous and fair negotiations."
And even if Turkey should survive the negotiation process, it will still have to swallow some final indignities. The EU has already made it clear the Turkish workforce will never enjoy full access to the bloc's labor market.

However, it is clear for both sides that it will be a long road for Turkey. The talks are expected to last 10 years and will be wrought with complications.

Resistance to Turkish membership goes far beyond the governments of Austria and Cyprus. Turkey has been given a
chance, but it will need to excel at political and economic reforms, and its drive for full membership could ultimately fail.

Straw sought to allay fears among EU member states that Turkey may yet prove unfit for membership.

"Every enlargement that has taken place within the European Union has made both the existing and the new member states stronger and more prosperous," he said. "I'm in absolutely no doubt that these benefits will follow from this enlargement; and it will bring a strong, secular state which happens to have a Muslim majority into the European Union -- a proof that we can live, work, and prosper together."

But the British foreign secretary also made it plain that he remains a realist. Negotiations with Turkey span 35 "chapters"
of EU law and will be far from easy, as membership applicants can only negotiate when -- not if -- they will put it all into

And even if Turkey should survive that process, it will still have to swallow some final indignities. The EU has already made it clear the Turkish workforce will never enjoy full access to the bloc's labor market.

The EU's lucrative farm and development policies will be restructured to cut costs before Turkey can join. And the country
is rather unlikely to become a member of the so-called Schengen area which abolishes internal borders.

Finally, Turkey has no guarantees it will not fail at the final hurdle. All existing EU member states must approve Ankara's
accession at the end of the talks. Some are likely to hold referendums -- France has already announced it will.

For more on EU expansion, see RFE/RL's special webpage: The EU Expands