EU leaders scrambled Friday for a deal to save a crucial summit that has offered Turkey EU membership talks from 2005, after Ankara dug in its heels over a demand that it recognize the Greek Cypriot government.
Premier Erdogan: Will Turkey's leadership accept the conditions?
After Turkish diplomats indicated they were "disappointed" at the stringent conditions, key EU countries sought to work out a fresh proposal to break the logjam. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Dutch counterpart Jan Peter Balkenende, whose nation holds the EU presidency, met in the morning to take stock of the situation.
Later, as the EU summit resumed in earnest, it emerged that Britain, France, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands were working on a proposal -- its details so far unknown -- to save the day. "The presidency has developed a proposal with the agreement of the three big countries," an EU diplomat said, referring to Britain, France and Germany. "The presidency is still working on this proposal."
EU leaders, smoothing over their own divisions, had agreed among themselves over dinner late Thursday to offer Turkey a start to intensive negotiations on Oct. 3, 2005 leading to nothing less than full EU membership. Once the talks are completed, probably in a decade, Turkey would become the first majority-Muslim nation inside what is now a 25-nation bloc, changing the geopolitical face of the eastern Mediterranean.
Cyprus: border crossing between north and south
The problem for Turkey is that it would require Ankara to do something it has historically avoided -- recognizing the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus. The Mediterranean island has been divided along ethnic lines since Turkish troops invaded its northern tier in 1974, and Ankara has refused to recognize anything other than the Turkish Cypriot government.
A Turkish diplomat said Friday that Ankara was disappointed by the EU demands, and said he saw only "slim chances" of agreement. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, whose government is one of Turkey's strongest supporters in the EU, told BBC radio that it was "not clear" Ankara could accept them.
The Cyprus issue has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Turkey's hopes of seeing its four-decade drive to be embraced into the European family bear fruit. It had all seemed so much more positive late Thursday, when EU leaders were busy trumpeting their historic offer to start membership talks.
Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende (left) and European Commission President Jose Barroso
"Tonight the European Union has opened its door to Turkey," said European Commission chief Jose Barroso, who would be in charge of negotiations.
Backers of Turkey's EU hopes, also including Germany, have long argued that the country is a vital bridge between Europe and the Middle East. "It is fundamentally a European nation and it needs to be in Europe," Straw said.
But critics have maintained their doubts over the 25-nation bloc's ability to absorb a huge, largely agrarian country with a population of more than 70 million. They had called for Ankara to be offered a "privileged partnership" as an alternative to full EU membership, should negotiations fail.
In the end a compromise was found to say that if negotiations broke down, "it must be ensured that (Turkey) is fully anchored in the European structures through the strongest possible bond," according to a draft text of the summit conclusions.
Turkish press skeptical
The mood in Friday's Turkish press was gloomy. "Cyprus Crisis With The EU," headlined the liberal Turkish daily Radikal, saying it had "cast a cloud over the date for accession talks that Ankara has awaited for years."
According to Yeni Safak, a Turkish daily close to the government, Erdogan has prepared two alternative speeches for the end of the EU summit. If a compromise was found, he would thank the EU for making a decision that would help prevent "the clash of civilizations," it reported. If not, he would reject the proposal and hint at freezing relations between Ankara and Brussels.
Separately, EU leaders agreed to ask Bulgaria and Romania to sign accession treaties in April next year, with a view to joining in January 2007 provided they pursue their reform process. Croatia was given hope in the longer term, with a proposed start date for membership talks also in April, provided it gives "full cooperation" with the UN war crimes court in The Hague which wants to prosecute a retired Croatian general over crimes during the 1991-1995 Balkans conflict.