EU keeps door open for Turkey but predicts 'difficult' talks ahead

After a debate described as "lengthy, argumentative and also very political", the European Commission stuck to existing moves to start talks on membership on 3 October.

"No" votes in referendums in France and the Netherlands on the European constitution have galvanised opponents of Turkish entry, and several commissioners suggested yesterday that a "privileged partnership" be considered with the EU instead.

The EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, said there was "no denying" that such an idea had been raised, adding: "I think the privileged partnership will be part of the debate in the years and months to come."

But, after stormy scenes, the majority of the commission backed the membership talks which Mr Rehn said would be "long and difficult". The terms of the "open-ended" negotiations were the "most rigorous" ever set out, he said.

Inside the meeting at least three commissioners, including Austria's Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Luxembourg's Viviane Reding and Slovakia's Jan Figel, sought to change the text.

Despite contributions from a further three sceptics about Turkish accession, they failed to soften the text's commitment to Turkey's eventual membership or lay more stress on the need to consider the EU's ability to absorb new member states.

Yesterday's decision is only a small step forward and needs to be approved by all 25 member states. In national capitals, several senior European politicians, including the German opposition leader, Angela Merkel, and France's rising political star, Nicholas Sarkozy, have come out against full membership for Turkey. All the main political parties in Austria are also opposed.

Nevertheless, most officials believe that membership negotiations will begin on 3 October, because failure to do so would send a negative signal to Ankara which might end its impressive internal reforms.

Turkey would be the first predominantly Muslim country to join the EU and, because of its large population and relative poverty, its absorption would pose unique problems. However supporters say admitting the country would help head off a clash of civilisations, boost the EU's economic potential and increase its defence capability.

Membership talks with Ankara are expected to last a decade but, in the changed climate after the French and Dutch referendums, many believe that Turkey may now never join.

Under the terms set out in the document, permanent measures could be considered, for example to bar Turkish workers from the EU internal market.

The text says talks will be based on Turkey's "own merits and the pace will depend on Turkey's progress in meeting the requirements for membership". The proposal also reiterates the warning that the commission or one third of the EU governments can recommend the talks be suspended "in the case of a serious and persistent breach" of democratic and human rights standards. There would then be a vote under majority voting rules.

In another reference to the possibility of an outcome short of full membership, Mr Rehn said that if Turkey cannot be brought into the bloc, Ankara "must be assured" of a special relationship by "anchoring it in European structures".

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