BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union and Turkey struck an historic deal on Friday to start talks next year on admitting the vast Muslim nation to the bloc after last-minute haggling over Ankara's ...relationship with EU member Cyprus.
The 25 EU leaders agreed to open membership negotiations with Turkey on Oct. 3, 2005, but in a nod to deeply skeptical public opinion in much of Western Europe they said talks would be open-ended with no guaranteed outcome.
The deal, seen by backers as a bridge builder between Europe and the Islamic world, followed lengthy wrangling that ended only when Turkey said it would sign a key protocol but insisted this did not mean recognition of the Greek Cypriot government.
"We have been writing history today," Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende told a news conference as EU leaders toasted the deal with c...hampagne and an orange juice for Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
"We believe that the EU should become a power which would really contribute to world peace," said Erdogan, who at one stage threatened to walk out over demands that he recognize the Greek Cypriot government.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of Turkey's strongest allies, said offering the large Muslim democracy the prospect of EU membership was a signal to the Islamic world:
"It shows that those who believe there is some fundamental clash in civilizations between Christian and Muslim are actually wrong, that we can w...ork together and we can cooperate together."
Turkish shares hit a record high on news of the deal, underlining Ankara's hopes that entry talks will attract foreign investment in the mainly agrarian country on the cusp of Europe and the Middle East. Bonds and the lira were firm.
CYPRUS THE BIG ISSUE
The summit ran into overtime over the EU's insistence that Turkey act toward recognizing the Greek Cypriot government, which Ankara has rejected until there is a settlement for the divided island.
The EU dropped a humiliating demand that Turkey initial the pact immediately on Friday. Erdogan had threatened to walk out after Cyprus demanded a written commitment.
A Turkish official quoted him as telling Balkenende: "You are choosing 600,000 Greeks (Cypriots) over 70 million Turks, and I cannot explain this to my people."
Eventually Turkey pledged unilaterally to sign a protocol extending its EU association agreement to 10 states which joined the bloc in May, including Cyprus, before it starts entry talks, while insisting that did not mean recognition.
The Mediterranean island, divided into Greek and Turkish sectors, has eluded 30 years of peace efforts. In April, Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. plan to reunite the island which Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots accepted.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said Erdogan gave the celebratory toast a bitter taste by stressing pointedly that Turkey was not recognizing Greek Cyprus. Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos had an equally tart reaction.
Balkenende said Turkey was not granting full recognition to Cyprus but hoped the EU deal would help solve the issue.
"It is not what you can call a formal legal recognition but it is a step that can lead to progress in this field," he said.
The EU also agreed on Friday to invite Bulgaria and Romania to join in 2007, taking its membership to 27 nations, and to open entry talks with Croatia next March.
Erdogan said Turkey had undergone a "silent revolution" in meeting EU demands for political and economic reform and its membership, after at least a further decade of negotiations and transformation, could only strengthen the bloc.
But EU leaders still have to overcome hostile public opinion toward the Turkey deal, sealed more than 40 years after Ankara signed an association deal with the bloc.
Opponents say Turkey is too big, too populous, too poor and too culturally different to integrate into the EU, and that the bloc risks a mass influx of cheap workers and "enlarging itself to death" by extending its borders to Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel pledged Austria would hold a referendum on Turkey's entry to the EU, following France's lead. Public opinion in Austria, France and several other member states, is overwhelmingly opposed to Ankara's bid.
French President Jacques Chirac said Ankara had made a "marvellous" effort for the EU but much remained to be done. He noted EU leaders had left open the possibility of failure.
"The opening of negotiations does not, naturally, mean accession. The road will be long, and difficult, if Turkey is to be able to meet all the conditions necessary to join Europe," Chirac told a news conference.
The EU decision made clear Turkey could not join before 2015, by which time it is projected to have the bloc's largest population with more than 80 million, giving it the most voting power in decision-making and the most European Parliament seats.
Before Turkey joins, it will have to transform its economy, society and long authoritarian politics, and the EU must revise fundamentally its two main spending policies -- farm subsidies and regional aid, which the poor nation would expect to draw on. Turkey is also likely to have to accept possible permanent emergency limits on labor migration, conditions not applied to past candidates and called discriminatory by Turkey.