The European Union clinched an 11th-hour accord with Turkey Monday to clear the way for landmark talks with the vast mainly Muslim state to go ahead, after marathon talks overcame Austrian objections.
The membership talks can begin
EU foreign ministers secured the deal for membership negotiations, avoiding what would have represented a new blow to the European bloc, already reeling from a double blow over its future shape earlier this year.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking after more than 24 hours of talks, called a new meeting of ministers Monday evening to formally approve the terms for the talks, minutes after Ankara gave its approval.
"Agreement has been reached and, God willing, we are heading for Luxembourg," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters in Ankara, where his jet had been standing ready awaiting an accord.
Breakthrough after warning
The breakthrough came after Straw warned that failure would prove "catastrophic" for the bloc, still in turmoil following French and Dutch rejections of its first-ever constitution in May and June.
It also came as UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte said Croatia was fully cooperating with her, a key demand for Zagreb to start EU talks. There is widespread speculation that Croatia's and Turkey's EU bids are linked.
The talks have been blocked by Austrian demands that the EU offer Turkey something less than full membership as part of the so-called "negotiating framework" for the talks, which sets out their principles and logistics.
Vienna had also pushed for stronger language warning that the EU's "absorption capacity" should be taken into account when assessing if Turkey can join, diplomats say.
Abdullah Gul, left, with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in 2004
The EU was forced to postpone a planned ceremony Monday afternoon to formally open the talks with Turkey, whose Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul remained in Ankara pending confirmation of an accord.
It was assumed that the signing ceremony would be taking place later Monday in Luxembourg.
Knocking at the door
After four decades of knocking at Europe's door, EU leaders meeting in December gave the vast predominantly Muslim country a date of October 3 to start membership talks.
But Ankara's recent insistence that it would still not recognize EU member state Cyprus, in a declaration attached to a customs agreement in July, created new strains just weeks before its long-awaited date.
It remained unclear late Monday what exact wording was finally agreed for the negotiating framework. The latest draft -- accepted by all 24 other EU states -- says EU entry is the main aim of the talks. Austria wanted that tempered with another formula, if not replaced altogether.
The EU delay has angered Turkish politicians and the public alike.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves a meeting with his ministers in Kizilcahamam near the capital Ankara on Monday, Oct. 3, 2005. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday crisis talks between the EU foreign ministers over admitting Turkey to the European Union were in trouble and start of entry talks with Ankara later in the day were quietly postponed. Erdogan said he maintained " hope until the last minute" that EU leaders would overcome the deadlock.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has suffered through tough political, economic and social reform to join, had urged the EU to show good sense before the accord was struck.
"If the EU wants to become a global power, if it aims to eliminate the conflict of civilizations, the concert of civilizations must be achieved," he said.
The EU has long underlined that the fact of starting membership negotiations does not guarantee that Turkey will actually join. In any case the talks are likely to take at least a decade, during which Turkey will have to bring comply with a succession of "chapters," or EU policy areas, forcing it to come meet EU standards.