EU, Turkey cautiously agree to begin talks on membership


LONDON - For both parties it felt more like a shotgun wedding than a match made in heaven, but in the end the European Union proposed and Turkey accepted.

European political leaders agreed warily to begin formal membership talks with Turkey next October. In return, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accepted a compromise under which Ankara will extend a trade protocol to its Greek adversaries on the divided island of Cyprus.

The Greek half of Cyprus, which Turkey does not recognize, joined the EU this year.

"The adoption of this protocol is in no way recognition, and I've put this on the record during my last speech" to the EU Council of Ministers, Erdogan said at a news conference yesterday.

The last-minute squabble over Cyprus cast a shadow over what should have been a momentous occasion for both Europe and Turkey.

EU diplomats have long promoted Turkey as the civilizational bridge between East and West. The invitation to begin accession talks was to be seen as proof of Europe's multiculturalism, a bold statement in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world that Europe sees no incompatibility between Islam and a modern democracy. For its part, Turkey has been waiting more than 40 years to be asked.

But yesterday's invitation was larded with qualifiers and caveats. The draft agreement makes clear that the talks will not automatically lead to membership and that they will be halted if Turkey backslides on the political and economic reforms required for EU membership. Even if all goes smoothly, the talks are expected to take 10 to 15 years.

Certainly, a country that is 99.8 percent Muslim, has 95 percent of its territory in Asia and shares borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran stretches the definition of "European."

In addition to being the only Muslim member of the EU, Turkey would be the poorest and, eventually, the largest.

Turkey's per capita gross domestic product is only one-third the EU average, and if present demographic trends continue, it would overtake Germany as the most populous EU member in 2020. That means Turkey, which would have the most votes in EU institutions under its system of proportional representation, would also be eligible for the largest subsidies.

While the leaders of the EU's 25 member states agreed unanimously, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to begin negotiations, public opinion within the EU is solidly opposed to admitting Turkey.

In Germany, which has Europe's largest Turkish immigrant community, one recent poll indicated that only 34 percent of the people want Turkey in the EU. Surveys in France indicate that 75 percent to 80 percent of the French are against Turkey's membership.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been one of Turkey's chief backers, but his political rivals in the opposition Christian Democratic Party have turned the Turkey question into a wedge issue by suggesting that Ankara be considered for "partnership" status rather than full membership.

French President Jacques Chirac has spoken eloquently of the need to include Turkey in the EU, but he covered his political flanks by promising to put the question to a referendum.

Austria also prefers partnership status for Turkey, and Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said yesterday that it is likely that Austria would put the question to a referendum.

In Denmark this week, someone covered the statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen's harbor with a Muslim burqa and draped it with a banner that asked a pointed question about Turkey's fitness for the EU.

Danes are struggling to integrate an expanding Muslim immigrant community.

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