The European Union overcame last-minute doubts and opened membership talks today with Turkey – a historic move to include a predominantly Muslim nation that both sides said would benefit all of Europe.
“We have just made history,” Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said after chairing the opening of the momentous talks. He added that the future for the union is “an EU based on values, not just history. Turkey has always been a European country.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who flew to Luxembourg late yesterday to attend the brief, middle-of-the-night ceremony to formally open the negotiations, said both Europe and Turkey stood to gain.
“Our relations with Europe began in 1963, a period of more than 40 years. We have arrived today at a historic stage,” he said. “It is not just Turkey that will win, but also the European Union will win.”
It took last-minute wrangling among EU foreign ministers during arduous Sunday to Monday talks to secure a joint position on opening the negotiations with Ankara.
Austria had demanded that Turkey be granted a special partnership deal, not full membership, raising last-minute doubts about letting the predominantly Muslim country join as a full-fledged member.
Straw said the EU crisis talks were “gruelling” – but commended both the EU and the Turkish government for showing “great statesmanship”.
“Every enlargement that has taken place within the European Union has made both the existing and the new member states stronger and more prosperous,” said Straw. ”I’m in absolutely no doubt that the benefits will follow from this enlargement and bring a strong secular state which happens to have a Muslim majority into the European Union.”
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agreed.
“It’s a historic step Europe has won; it’s a big chance for both sides,” Fischer said.
The agreement and the ceremony with Gul, however brief, was a rare point of light in a gloomy year for the EU.
Last spring, a proposed EU constitution was shot down in French and Dutch referendums. The EU economy is in the doldrums, an ill-tempered mid-June summit left the EU without a budget for 2007-2013 and last month’s German elections cast doubts on the political direction of the EU’s biggest economy.
Failure to start entry talks with Turkey would have been another blow to the credibility of the EU, which made Turkey an associate member in 1963 with the prospect of future membership.
On Sunday, the negotiations over Turkey got off to a bad start. The EU foreign ministers laboured late into the night to try persuading Austria to drop its last-minute objections to Ankara’s bid for full EU membership.
Vienna relented late yesterday afternoon, paving the way for the EU to send its terms on membership to Ankara. Turkey approved the terms of the negotiations - expected to take at least a decade – and sent a delegation to Luxembourg.
“We passed the most important phase on the way to reaching our 40-year goal and the founding principles of our republic,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Ankara. “The document is satisfactory. I am happy to say that common sense prevailed.”
All 25 EU members had agreed in December to launch entry talks with Turkey yesterday. But last week, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik suggested a “privileged partnership” for Turkey instead, questioning the EU’s ability to absorb the nation of 70 million people and invoking concerns among Europeans.
Plassnik eventually accepted language in the EU’s terms for membership stating that “the shared objective of the negotiations is (Turkey’s) accession.”
Although Turkey belongs to Nato, the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development and the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, its shaky human rights and poor economic past have kept it from becoming a full EU member.
In recent years, Ankara has implemented key political and economic reforms, and now wants the EU to make good on its promise to bring it into the bloc.
One significant political issue remains unresolved: Turkey does not recognise EU member Cyprus, only a renegade Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the divided Mediterranean island.
The EU also opened entry talks early today with Croatia after UN chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told EU foreign ministers that Zagreb was co-operating fully to try to bring a wanted war crimes suspect to trial.