The EU's executive vowed Wednesday to "stick to its word" to Ankara and start entry talks in October despite the bloc's current turmoil, while stressing there is no guarantee of eventual EU membership.
It will take a while before Turkey's flag finds a place in Brussels
Just as the EU's enlargement chief, Olli Rehn, went before the press to talk about the intense debate over Turkey's possible EU membership, a storm broke out over Brussels. The satellite connections were cut, computer screens went dark for several minutes. Some took it as an omen. But Rehn reinforced the EU's continuing support for negotiation talks with the vast, largely Muslim country with the goal being accession, but not before 2014.
He said despite the turbulence the European bloc currently finds itself in after failed referendums on the EU constitution and financial squabbles, Turkey should be given the chance to demonstrate that it can fulfil the obligations for membership, even if the road ahead is a long, meandering one, and membership is not guaranteed.
Presenting a roadmap-style plan for the talks, Rehn also underlined that the vast mainly-Muslim country faces a huge task of reform if it ever is to join the bloc.
"We stick to our word ... the negotiation process will encourage implementation of reforms and give a strong impulse to those who want more democracy and more human rights in this country," he said.
"It will certainly be a long and difficult journey, but the journey will be as important as the destination," he added.
Differences of opinion ahead
Rehn was more than two hours late for the news conference announcing that the Commission had adopted the draft mandate to start negotiations. He told reporters: "We had a lengthy, argumentative and also very political debate."
UN soldiers, seen behind barbed wire and a EU flag, cross the Ledra Palace checkpoint in Nicosia, Cyprus.
He called the negotiating framework "rigorous" and emphasized the demand that Turkey improve relations with its neighbors, particularly Cyprus, which has been divided since 1974 into Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, and Armenia, with which it has no diplomatic relations and a sealed border.
Ankara is also under pressure to carry through on economic and political reforms as well as expand its customs union with the EU to include all ten new member states, including Cyprus.
Cyprus, however, threatens to be a sticking point. Turkish officials are still talking about an additional declaration to the "Ankara Protocol" on customs union stating the document does not entail Turkish recognition of Cyprus.
Talks to start in October
The 25-member bloc's leaders agreed in December to start accession talks with Ankara on October 3 provided the country meets a number of conditions, including signing an accord with the divided island of Cyprus.
On Wednesday, the commission agreed on a proposed "framework for negotiations," setting out its technical plans for how the talks should proceed.
In any case the talks to join the EU -- which underwent a "big bang" expansion from 15 to 25 members last year, with a handful more waiting in line apart from Turkey -- are expected to last at least a decade.
But the commission proposals reiterated terminology agreed by EU leaders in December, notably that the talks are "an open-ended process, the outcome of which cannot be guaranteed beforehand."
"If Turkey will not be able to (join) we must ensure that she is fully anchored in the European structures," said Rehn, who forecast that talk of a "privileged partnership" with Turkey rather than full EU membership will likely feature in the debate on the issue.
And the EU's constitution crisis has clouded the issue even further. Opposition to Turkey's EU hopes was seen as a key factor behind the "no" votes, and EU leaders have pledged to react by listening more to ordinary Europeans.
A "hold" on enlargement?
More fuel was adding to those burning issues on Monday by interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy who called for EU enlargement to be put on hold to give time for its internal institutions to be "renovated."
"Enlargement must be suspended at least as long as the institutions have not been renovated. Europe must have borders," he said. "Not all countries have a vocation to be in Europe."
Angela Merkel during a visit to Turkey in 2004
A growing number of center-right leaders in western Europe, including the likely next German chancellor, Angela Merkel (photo), oppose Turkish entry and favour the "privileged partnership" option.
Turkey has kept up pressure for the EU to stick by its commitments. On the eve of the EU proposals, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the bloc to show that it is a not a "Christian club" by admitting his country as a member.
"If you really think the EU is not a Christian club, you must arrange it so that Turkey joins you," he told a seminar Tuesday night. "We hope that the EU becomes a crossing point where civilizations can find one another," he added.
EU commission head Jose Manuel Barroso, while insisting that talks are due to start in October, has also acknowledged that the EU needed to "discuss seriously" public concerns about the country's possible membership.
"It will be a complete mistake not to look at this issue seriously," he said last week. "We need the support of member states and citizens in our member states for the enlargement of the European Union," he added.