The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, announced the decision to the European Parliament today.
"The reply that the commission gives today is a 'yes' -- a positive response with respect to the [political] requirements and favorable with the regard to the opening of negotiations. However, it is a qualified 'yes' that comes with a series of recommendations regarding the control and verification of the situation in Turkey," Prodi said.
He warned that Turkey's path will not be easy, and that there will be "ups and downs." He said that even the outcome of the talks was not guaranteed.
Still, the decision counts as a major victory for Turkey. Ankara first applied for EU membership in the early 1960s, but was made a formal candidate only in 1999.
The decision will need to be endorsed by leaders of EU member states at a summit on 17 December. The endorsement is widely expected to be a formality as the main political battle was fought at today's Commission meeting.
Both Prodi and the EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, argued that the report they presented today gives a fair and accurate picture of the political situation in Turkey.
Prodi said Turkey has reached the minimum necessary standard to begin talks, although much remains to be done.
"The report examines the situation on torture, women's rights, the rights of trade unions, religious freedom, and the relationship between the civilian and military spheres. A lot has already been achieved in all these areas, as the evident progress shows in the last years. Yet much remains to be done. All of this explains our positive, yet at the same time, prudent position," Prodi said.
Prodi acknowledged significant skepticism within the commission and the EU at large. Commission officials say some commissioners had warned Turkey's accession would mean "the end of the EU as we know it." However, in the end, only Dutch commissioner Frits Bolkestein was reported to have voted against the recommendation.
Addressing the concerns of the skeptics, Prodi said Turkey is a "big country" and that the current EU will need to protect itself.
This means, first of all, that EU member states are likely to retain the permanent right to close their borders to Turkish workers. Verheugen said today he has already had talks with the Turkish government on the issue. He said Ankara has offered no objections to the measure.
The EU will also find a way of accommodating Turkey without bankrupting its agricultural and regional aid policies. Turkey's acceptance under current conditions is estimated to potentially cost the bloc 28 billion euros ($34 billion) in 2025 -- at today's prices. The EU's annual budget is currently 100 billion euros.
Prodi also said Turkey's enlargement cannot be factored into the EU's 2007-2013 budget. That means that under the most optimistic scenarios, Turkey cannot join before 2015. Verheugen said the talks, expected to begin in 2005, could take "12-13 years."
Prodi said the commission would also closely monitor the progress of Turkey's reforms.
"But it must be said with clarity and calmness to our Turk partners that any interruption in this path toward democracy, toward human rights, toward basic rights, and the rule of law as they are practiced in the European Union will bring about an immediate end to the negotiations," Prodi said.
Prodi and Verheugen stressed that there are "no guarantees" at the outset of the talks of a successful end. Prodi added, however, that he "cannot foresee a future where Turkey does not play a solid part in Europe."
Diplomats say the EU is already positioning itself for the possibility that referendums in France or elsewhere might reject Turkish membership. In such a case, Turkey would still be expected to accept what amounts to a "special partnership" with the EU.
Prodi also tried to soothe public opinion both in Turkey and the EU. He said Turkish citizens must understand it will be "a long path," with "ups and downs."
He said the EU public, on the other hand, has "nothing to fear" from Turkey.
Officials say some issues -- such as Turkey's continued refusal to recognize the Greek part of Cyprus, which is now a EU member state -- could still complicate discussions at the EU summit in December.