Britain warns of clash of civilisations in row over Turkey

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At an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg tonight, chaired by Britain, Austria will face pressure to withdraw its threat to veto the start of EU membership talks with Ankara. Formal negotiations - a historic moment for which Turkey has waited more than four decades - are due to start tomorrow.

Despite its isolation, Austria has refused to approve the negotiating mandate, without which the talks cannot start. It insists that an alternative to membership should be considered for Turkey, but any mention of a potential second-class status would prompt Ankara to walk away.

Even if they start, negotiations with Turkey will probably last a decade. At least two EU countries say they will hold referendums before giving Ankara the green light to join. The row has touched a raw nerve across Europe. Opinion is divided over the merits of admitting a mainly Muslim country of 70 million, many of whom live in relative poverty.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, is warning of the geopolitical consequences of delivering a rebuff to Turkey. "We're concerned about a so-called clash of civilisations," he told The Politics Show, to be broadcast on BBC1 at noon today. "We're concerned about this theological-political divide, which could open up even further down the boundary between so-called Christian-heritage states and those of Islamic heritage. We need to see Turkey in the European Union and not pushed the other way."

But the former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing argued that Britain backs Turkish membership because it would help to dilute European integration by widening, not deepening, the EU. The union had changed since Ankara first knocked on its door and Turkish membership would "complicate the life of Europe", he said.

All 25 EU nations agreed last December that membership negotiations should start tomorrow with Turkey. But since then, referendum "no" votes on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands have changed the climate. None of the main political parties in Austria backs Turkish accession, and the government's stance has been popular among Austrians, who vote in regional elections today.

By contrast, Austria supports membership talks with Croatia, which are stalled over Zagreb's failure to convince the UN war crimes tribunal that it is co-operating fully in the hunt for a Croatian suspect, Ante Gotovina. One possible compromise is for Croatia to be given a date to start talks in exchange for Austria backing down on Turkey.

Britain has scheduled the talks on Croatia for tomorrow, after the discussion on Turkey, in a tactical move designed to put maximum pressure on Vienna. In theory, the two issues are not connected, though intense discussions on all matters will take place behind the scenes.

The former European Commissioner, Chris (now Lord) Patten, described the Austrians' behaviour as "lamentable". He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The impact on the West's relationship with Islam if we turn down Turkey's accession, even after Turkey has carried through reforms, mostly on the visceral grounds that we are the relics of Christian civilisation and they're Islamic - and that's how it would play in the Islamic world - then that would have very bad implications. You hear so much rhetoric about Europe playing a significant role in the world. What the hell signal do we send to the rest of the world if we can't accept Turkish accession to the European Union?"