Meeting in Brussels for a two-day summit, EU leaders reached agreement last night to extend Turkey an invitation to begin accession talks next year.
The decision was announced by Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende on behalf of the current EU presidency.
"We, [EU leaders, have] said -- and that will be the [formal] decision [on Friday] -- that we can start negotiations with Turkey on the basis of the analysis of the [European] Commission that has to do with the implementation of the political Copenhagen criteria. [The talks] will start on October 3rd next year," Balkenende said.
The accession process is expected to take 10 to 15 years.
Although the finish line may be in sight for Turkey, significant ambiguities in the decision may mean further difficulties down the road. Determined skepticism from Austria, France, Denmark, and Cyprus means the EU's offer comes with conditions.
One has to do with whether talks will automatically guarantee Turkey membership. Austria and France argue that the EU should acknowledge that problems may arise that would rule out that option.
Balkenende said last night that the compromise that has been reached is based on the original wording of the European Commission's assessment report in October, which concluded that Turkey meets the EU's Copenhagen entry criteria.
He went on to say that, in his view, the decision means talks will lead to full membership. However, he acknowledged that different outcomes may be possible.
"What is the goal of negotiations? The goal of negotiations is accession. But, as already indicated in the report of the European Commission, there is no guarantee for the outcome. And if these negotiations would lead to a situation that membership would not be possible, then it must be ensured that the candidate state -- as we worded it -- must be anchored in the European structures," Balkenende said.
Diplomats tell RFE/RL that the relevant part of the summit conclusions will contain wording stressing that all of the Copenhagen entry criteria must be satisfied. Apart from the political criteria -- which Turkey has now been deemed to meet -- there are also economic goals to achieve.
Crucially, there is another criterion that says the EU must itself be able to absorb the candidate. Hence, talks may fail not only because of Turkey's failings, but also if the EU itself should decide it cannot accommodate Turkey.
This formulation helps Austrian and French leaders placate skeptical public opinion back home.
The date for accession talks -- 3 October 2005 -- is said to have been suggested by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Britain will hold the EU's rotating presidency between July and December.
However, one official said the date was initially picked by Germany -- a strong supporter of Turkish membership. It coincides with the date of the reunification of East Germany with the Federal Republic of Germany in 1990.
One issue that will need to be spelled out on the second day of the summit today is the relationship between Turkey and Greek Cyprus. Balkenende said last night that he will need to hold further consultations with the Turkish government on that topic.
"We also discussed the issue of Cyprus, and later this evening I will have further contact with Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. And tomorrow [17 December], we will continue talking about this issue," Balkenende said.
Officials say Turkey has laid down a number of so-called "red lines" -- that is, positions it says it will not give up. These have included assertions that Ankara will accept nothing short of full membership and that it will not recognize Cyprus.
However, EU diplomats believe some of the Turkish rhetoric is to satisfy domestic political considerations.
The president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso -- a strong supporter of Turkey's entry into the EU -- yesterday urged Ankara to accept the deal. He said it is a "balanced offer" that takes account of the legitimate concerns of both sides.
Barroso said Turkey should put aside what he called "lesser considerations."
"I genuinely believe that this is an offer that Turkey should be glad to accept. It shows clearly the end goal. The end goal is membership," Barroso said.
Diplomats say they expect Turkey to agree to recognize Cyprus on a de facto basis -- by extending its existing customs union agreement with the EU to all 25 member states. The treaty -- also known as the Ankara agreement -- currently covers only nine of the EU's earliest member states.
One EU minister tells RFE/RL that a declaration will be added to the summit conclusions stating that Turkey agrees to extend the Ankara agreement before talks begin on 3 October 2005, and that it will also undertake to "improve relations with all EU member states."
This falls short of Cyprus's initial demand of full recognition but should be sufficient for Nikosia.