EU chiefs set for late 2005 talks start date


EU: European Union leaders look set to agree tomorrow to start membership talks with Turkey in late 2005 but will make clear that there is no guarantee that the negotiations will lead to full EU membership writes Denis Staunton in Brussels.

EU diplomats said yesterday that a consensus was forming among the 25 member-states in favour of a decision to start talks in October or November next year but to specify that the negotiations are "open-ended".

Austria's chancellor, Mr Wolfgang Schüssel, who is sceptical about Turkey's membership bid, said yesterday he could accept such a compromise.

"It has to be in there that the result will come from an open process, and that this result cannot be guaranteed in advance. And this will only be credible if another sentence is added that says if there is no positive result on the membership option, then there will be a firm anchoring of Turkey in European structures," he said.

The European Parliament yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of starting talks with Turkey "without undue delay" and rejected a conservative proposal that both sides should specify that the negotiations could lead to a "privileged partnership" between Turkey and the EU rather than full membership.

The Commission President, Mr Jose Manuel Barroso, told MEPs that, after 40 years, it was time to open the EU's door to Turkey. "It is now time for the European Council to honour its commitment to Turkey and announce the opening of accession negotiations. A clear date should be indicated. We accept that the accession process is open-ended and its outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand," he said.

EU leaders will discuss Turkey over dinner in Brussels this evening and issue a formal statement on membership talks tomorrow morning. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mr Jan-Peter Balkenende, who will chair the meeting, expressed confidence yesterday that the leaders would agree to open negotiations with Ankara.

"On the basis of the contacts that I've had, a 'yes' seems likely to come, but we need a unanimous decision . . . It is a process that could last years and it should be monitored. The goal must be membership, but that is not a guarantee," he told the Dutch parliament.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Mr Tayyip Erdogan, also expressed confidence yesterday on the outcome of the summit. Speaking at Ankara airport before he left for Brussels, Mr Erdogan said, however, that he would walk away from the talks if the EU imposed unacceptable preconditions.

"We don't expect any conditions that we cannot accept. But if they try to impose them . . . we would put relations on ice and continue on our own path," he said.

Turkey has ruled out recognising the Greek Cypriot state in advance of the summit but EU diplomats expect Ankara to agree to extend its association agreement with the EU to the 10 new member-states, including Cyprus, which joined earlier this year.

Such a move would come close to formal recognition but Mr Barroso said yesterday that, if Turkey wants to join the EU, it will have to give full recognition to all member-states, including Cyprus. "If you want to become a member of a club, isn't it normal that you recognise the other members of that club?" he said.