LUXEMBOURG (AFP) – The European Union celebrated a new chapter in the continent”s history after opening entry talks with Turkey, a large mainly Muslim state whose admission would take the EU right up to the borders of the Middle East.
But while the 25-nation bloc”s leaders celebrated after clinching a late-night deal on Tuesday to launch the talks, the fact that it is opposed by most ordinary Europeans cast a cloud over the sense of triumph.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, looking exhausted after a 30-hour marathon haggle to overcome objections notably by Austria, said the agreement was nothing short of historic.
"We are all winners: Europe, the existing (EU) member states, Turkey and the international community," told an early-hours news conference in Luxembourg, where he was joined by his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul.
Gul was greeted with handshakes and warm embraces after staying in Ankara until his government was satisfied with the terms for the negotiations.
"We have come to a historic point today… What is important for us is that the prospect of full membership is very clear. There is no alternative such as a privileged partnership," Gul said.
The talks had 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.
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 constitution in May and June.
After four decades of knocking at Europe”s door, EU leaders meeting in December gave the large Muslim country a date of October 3 to start membership talks.
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 for the negotiations.
That issue was resolved last month. But wrangling over the exact wording of the negotiating framework went right down to the wire, with Austria holding out for Turkey to be offered something less than full EU membership.
In the event, the text finally agreed conserves the original wording that "the shared objective of the negotiations is accession."
But it adds that "if Turkey is not in a position to assume in full all the obligations of membership it must be ensured that Turkey is fully anchored in the European structures through the strongest possible bond."
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 comply with a succession of "chapters," or EU policy areas, forcing it to meet EU standards.
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, who nearly triggered the abandonment of the Luxembourg talks, vowed after the agreement to maintain strong ties with Ankara despite the standoff.
She pointed out that 250,000 Turks live in Austria, saying: "We are good partners inside our society and we will be good partners with Turkey."
British commentators hailed Straw”s diplomatic skills.
The Luxembourg talks "have set in train a process with the potential to… pre-empt the very ”clash of civilisations” that opponents of Turkish membership claim to fear," said the Times of London.
But former French president Valery Giscard d”Estaing — architect of the bloc”s near-dead constitution — immediately slammed the the deal, which he has previously warned could lead to the end of the EU.
"France used to have a grand project: the political union of Europe," he said. "We have allowed two further enlargements which are obviously going to transform Europe into a large free trade zone: that”s what I regret."