The European Commission has approved starting EU accession negotiations with Turkey. According to a report published on Wednesday, Brussels backed beginning talks with Ankara but warned a long road lies ahead.
Turkey's Erdogan gets the EU Commission's blessing
In a progress report presented to the European Union on Wednesday, the Commission recommended opening membership talks with Turkey, but left room for suspending or even breaking off talks at any point if unsatisfied with Turkey's progress.
The bloc's executive linked the success of negotiations with a series of stipulations such as progress on human rights and implementing outstanding reforms in the legal system.
"The Commission considers that Turkey sufficiently fulfills the political criteria and recommends that accession negotiations be opened," stated the report, which was endorsed by a large consensus among the commissioners.
The Commission refused to say when accession talks would commence, leaving the final decision to EU leaders at a December 17 summit.
If the European Commission's recommendation is approved by the 25 EU leaders at the end of the year summit, entry talks could begin in early 2005, capping years of lobbying by Turkish leaders who say their country could form a bridge between Muslim countries and Europe.
EU officials have also not given a concrete date for Turkey's actual entry. Most estimates, though, indicate that Ankara's road to Brussels will extend until well into the next decade, with 15 years the most likely target.
Bumpy road to membership
Turkey's been looking to join the EU for 40 years
Turkey, an official candidate since 1999, has been waiting to join the European club for four decades. But within the European bloc, Turkish membership has been a controversial topic, with opinion divided on whether to accept a large, poor and predominantly Muslim nation of 70 million with a patchy record on human rights.
"There is clearly the possibility that Turkey can become a member, but the negotiations, and this is very important, are open-ended," Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler said after the Commission made its announcement.
"There is no more ground to be opposed fundamentally to the start of entry talks. It is also clear that there is still a lot to do," said Fischler ahead of an official statement read in the European Parliament.
The report noted Ankara had made substantial progress in passing political reforms but still needed to improve implementation, notably in the fight against torture and the protection of fundamental liberties such as the freedom of expression and religion, and rights for women, trade unions and minorities.
"The Commission will recommend the suspension of the negotiations in the case of a serious and persistent breach of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms on which the Union is based," it stated.
An emergency brake
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was instrumental in pushing through policy reforms to bring his country in line with EU criteria for accession talks, voiced dismay at hints there would be an "emergency brake." Prior to Wednesday's announcement he told Deutsche Welle that Turkey had "done its homework" and it was now "up to the EU to uphold their end" and proceed with negotiations.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul on Monday also rejected any suggestion of "special conditions" for Turkey and said the same criteria should apply to his country as to the 10 mostly eastern and southern European members who entered the bloc this past May.
European Commission President Romano Prodi, speaking to Reuters on the eve of his outgoing executive's last major decision, played down the novelty of introducing an "emergency brake" to stop talks if Ankara slipped on key standards.
Romani Prodi, European Commission President
"We have to be sure that Turkey will be like any of the other member states in case they come in," he said, insisting the Commission would apply the same standards to Ankara's bid as it did to all previous applicants. "Don't you think there were clearly built-in emergency brakes in all the negotiations we had?" he said.
Special conditions for Turkey
In its report the Commission also recommended the EU consider implementing permanent safeguards that would curb migrant labor from Turkey, as well as agree to "specific arrangements" before Ankara benefits fully from EU farm subsidies and regional aid.
An impact study leaked to the press ahead of the Commission's announcement revealed that between 500,000 and four million Turkish migrants a year could move into the rest of the EU after membership, and that yearly subsidies of between 16 and 28 billion euros ($19 to $34 billion) would be required to bring Turkey's agriculture and infrastructure up to par with the rest of the bloc.
Despite these concerns, Prodi said Europe had no reason to fear Turkey's membership: "Europe with a constitution, with strong institutions and affirmed policies for a strong model of peace and economic well being, has nothing to fear from the accession of Turkey," he told the European Parliament.