EU leaders to offer Turkey deal on membership talks

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The European Parliament yesterday called for EU membership talks with Turkey as soon as possible, paving the way for heads of government to make an historic offer to Ankara at a meeting tonight.

The European Parliament yesterday called for EU membership talks with Turkey as soon as possible, paving the way for heads of government to make an historic offer to Ankara at a meeting tonight.

More than 40 years after Turkey sought membership of the European club, EU leaders are expected to agree on the terms under which membership negotiations, likely to last at least a decade, can begin next year. Yesterday MEPs, meeting in Strasbourg, voted 407 to 262, with 29 abstentions, to pass the resolution and rejected amendments which offered Turkey an intermediate status of "special partnership" rather than full membership. Though the vote, unusually a secret one, has no legal force, it makes it harder for opponents of Turkish accession to say they have popular support across the EU.

With fears of a rift between the West and the Islamic world, the EU is desperate to avoid a rebuff to Turkey, which would be the first mainly Muslim country to join its ranks. But several sensitive issues have to be resolved when EU leaders arrive in Brussels tonight for a dinner which will discuss the Turkish issue. A senior British official said a deal is "within grasp but not in the bag".

On the eve of the negotiations the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said he would say no to the EU if the bloc imposed unacceptable conditions on Ankara. "Then, we put this issue in the refrigerator and go on our way," he added.

Turkey will be offered tougher terms than any other country which has applied for membership and the present draft text says "permanent safeguard clauses may be considered", suggesting that existing EU countries may be able to bar Turkish workers permanently. The UK dislikes this idea but may accept it as part of the overall package.

EU leaders seem ready to meet one central Turkish demand, that there should be a clear date for talks to start, with no suggestion that this would need to be given the go-ahead by another meeting of EU leaders next year. France is insisting negotiations should not begin until after it has held a referendum on the EU constitution, in case the two issues become intertwined.

With the French likely to vote next spring, the deal on the table tonight would see formal talks beginning in the second half of next year under the British presidency of the EU.

More difficult is whether EU leaders should hint that, should negotiations fail, Turkey might be given a status short of full membership. Ankara has made clear it will not countenance a "special partnership" with the EU rather than membership. The German government is also opposed to this, because it is the German opposition party's policy, and France is not demanding such a direct statement.

The latest text leaves that hot potato for the heads of government to resolve, though it reminds them of the formulation used by the European Commission which refers to an "open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand".

That formulation ought to be acceptable to Mr Erdogan, who knows either side may want to call off negotiations. But France and Austria want another sentence, the drafting of which will be highly sensitive.

And the Cypriot government appeared to have backed away from calls for Turkey to recognise its existence. Instead, Ankara is expected to move toward an implicit form of recognition by indicating it will extend a customs union to all 10 of the countries that joined the EU in May, including Cyprus.

The present draft proposes an "emergency break" under which talks could be stopped in the case of a "serious and persistent breach" of fundamental principles of "liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law". A vote would decide whether to suspend talks.