It is in Europe's best interests that Turkey's hopes are not betrayed

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The Independent Online

Turkey is not yet guaranteed its place in the European Union. But yesterday's agreement in Brussels was a momentous step on the road there. After more than 40 years of ducking and prevaricating, EU leaders finally did the right thing and invited Ankara to the negotiating table. To have stalled again would have blown a hole in the EU's credibility and sent an immeasurably damaging signal around the entire Muslim world.

Turkey is not yet guaranteed its place in the European Union. But yesterday's agreement in Brussels was a momentous step on the road there. After more than 40 years of ducking and prevaricating, EU leaders finally did the right thing and invited Ankara to the negotiating table. To have stalled again would have blown a hole in the EU's credibility and sent an immeasurably damaging signal around the entire Muslim world.

After initially baulking at the conditions imposed, Turkey wisely agreed to look beyond the fine print, and embrace the opportunity denied it for so long. The Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan can, at long last, take with him to Ankara a clear starting date for talks - 3 October 2005 - when an accession conference will begin under the British presidency of the EU.

True, the conditions are unprecedented in their toughness. The 25 existing members can, for example, consider permanent bans on Turkish workers; and they can break off negotiations if Turkey falls back on its commitment to human rights and reform. The most unpalatable requirement is an implicit recognition of divided Cyprus.

But the invitation to membership talks has come in the face of steep resistance from countries such as Austria and public nervousness in many other EU states. The conditions are the minimum required for the French president Jacques Chirac, who has promised a referendum, to get the deal past a sceptical public, alarmed about the prospect of rising immigration. And while Cyprus remains a neuralgic issue for the Turks, denying its existence is a road to nowhere. The Turks must also take heart from the two lessons of the history of European enlargements. No nation that has started membership negotiations has ever been denied a place. And the conditions that may seem unreasonable now will ultimately become meaningless once the fear, for example of a flood of migrants, proves unfounded.

Some of the hostility to Turkey's membership is grounded in genuine concern. Will Turkey continue on its path of democratic reform? Will its size, complexity and the acute poverty of some of its regions shipwreck the EU's economic and social achievements? The 10 or even 15 years that negotiations will take should be enough to allay those fears. What our political leaders must do is ensure that these concerns are not the masks of a sinister xenophobia and fear of Turkey's Muslim "character".

EU leaders now have a moral responsibility both to convince their electorates to support this agreement and to complete the negotiations in a reasonable time-frame. All sides must keep their eye on the prize that successfully embedding Turkey in the club of European democracies would bring. In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, this is above all an opportunity for Europe to embrace the Muslim world and for individual EU states to bridge divisions with their own Muslim communities. Yesterday showed the political willingness is there to embark on the task. Turkey must fulfil its obligations too, but providing that happens, there must be no more about-turns or betrayals.

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