With Turkey raising new obstacles and Austria holding out against an accord to clear the way for talks with Ankara, the European Union teetered on the brink of crisis Monday, and Turkey's EU hopes hung in the balance.
Austria's Plassnik (r) wants an alternative to Turkey's membership
Even US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has intervened in a bid to salvage Turkey's European Union membership talks.
Rice allegedly spoke by telephone with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, telling him that the EU's proposed negotiating framework for the talks would not impinge on NATO.
The call came after Turkey cemented the existing deadlock by objecting to a clause stipulating that it could not block EU members joining international organizations and treaties, which Turkish hardliners argue could prevent Ankara blocking a divided Cyprus from joining NATO.
The initial start to the EU-Turkey talks has already been postponed by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on behalf of EU president Britain, who said early Monday that he was not certain a deal could be struck.
"I hope that we are able to make progress but I cannot say for certain that we will be able to make progress," he told reporters.
Austria is the country digging its heels in most firmly, refusing to agree to a mandate for the negotiations unless an alternative to full EU membership for the Muslim country is offered.
"We do want the negotiations to begin," stressed Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik. "But to vote in favor, we require improvements to the text. That's what we're working on."
"We are near to a deal," said Straw, "but we are also on the edge of a precipice."
The failure to start the Turkey talks will inevitably deepen an EU crisis triggered by French and Dutch voters' rejection of the bloc's draft constitution in May and June. Some cited opposition to Turkey's EU hopes as a reason for voting no.
"Turkey has brought two Europes face to face," commented Turkish newspaper Vatan Monday. "A Europe that looks to a future of absolute peace by ending religious diaparity and conflict, and a Europe that seeks to preserve its religious identity with xenophobia and racist, nationalistic fundamentalism."
"Very little progress"
Austria's Plassnik, arriving for a bilateral meeting with Straw ahead of the resumed EU talks, said there could still be a deal, even though admitting that "very little progress" had been made so far.
"We haven't yet given up hope," she told reporters. "We need to move towards each other," she said.
Plassnik refused to bow under the pressure of being confronted by all her fellow European Union members.
"We are not afraid of difficult situations," she told reporters after another round of talks with Straw. "There are limits, and we are about to explore them now."
Turkey threatens to turn its back
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül huddled with his advisors awaiting news that never came that Austria had ceded ground. Despite its EU ambitions, Turkey has threatened to turn its back if Vienna gets its way.
After four decades of knocking at Europe's door, the vast, predominantly Muslim country was given a date of Oct. 3 to start talks by EU leaders in December.
But Ankara's recent insistence that it would still not recognise EU member state Cyprus, in a declaration attached to a customs agreement in July, created new strains just weeks before its long-awaited date.
The present dispute focuses on the wording of the "negotiating framework" for the accession talks -- essentially their guiding procedures and principles -- which Austria wants to refer to something other than full membership.
EU -- a Christian club?
But it is difficult to see exactly what change of wording is needed.
The current draft -- accepted by all 24 other EU states -- says that EU entry is the main aim of the talks. Vienna would like that tempered with another formula, if not replaced altogether.
The new EU delay has angered Turkish politicians and the public alike.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has suffered through tough political, economic and social reform to join, warned the EU against being a "Christian club" by refusing to start the talks.
"Either the EU will decide to become a world force and a world player ... or it will limit itself to a Christian club," he said.
The Croatian factor
One unknown factor is exactly how much stock Austria puts in neighboring Croatia being given the green light on Monday to start its own delayed talks.
Croation war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina
Croatia was originally to have started EU entry talks in March, but its case has been held up by its lack of cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal, notably over a key war crimes suspect, fugitive general Ante Gotovina (photo).
In an interview with DW-WORLD, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who as German foreign minister was instrumental in Croatia being internationally recognized as an independent state, argued in favor of the country joining the bloc.
"The admission of Slovenia shows that it was advantageous for the Slovenes but also for the current EU member states. And the same thing holds true for Croatia. Croatia has covered a remarkable path to democracy. Croatia fulfills the prerequisites for EU membership."