EU: Turkey Can Start Membership Talks in 2005

A majority of EU nations backed a German-French proposal Tuesday giving Turkey a conditional date to start membership talks in 2005 -- but Turks complained the date was too late.

The offer aims at reconciling Turkey's eagerness to join the 15-nation bloc with criticism from some in the European Union who say Turkey must first prove its democratic and economic credentials.

The debate has become a key issue ahead of a two-day EU summit starting Thursday in Copenhagen, Denmark, where 10 mostly former communist nations are to be invited to join in 2004.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, whose country holds the EU presidency, said a draft proposal based on the German-French plan would be presented to EU leaders Friday.

The proposal calls for Turkey to start negotiations in July 2005 if a report presented at the end of 2004 shows it meets the criteria. Turkey had wanted to get started in 2003, as membership negotiations can last several years.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of Turkey's new ruling political party, received U.S. backing for his nation's EU bid Tuesday during a White House meeting with President Bush. Washington has urged the EU to give Turkey a date on starting talks soon.

"My administration is working hard on Turkey's behalf," Bush said later.

Turkey, a NATO ally that borders Iraq, is seen as playing a crucial role in any U.S. strike against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. Turkey hosts some 50 U.S. aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, and was a staging post for U.S. air raids against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

Britain also offered support.

"There should be a firm date for the beginning of the negotiations," said Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "I hope this will be the result at the summit."

Some EU nations have expressed concern about Turkey's human rights record, though the bloc accepted Turkey as a slower-track candidate for membership in 1999.

"We cannot compromise on (Turkey's) fulfilling of the rigid criteria," Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a visit to Greece.

Some European leaders have angered Turkish officials by portraying the EU as a club of Christian nations ill-suited to integrating a secular Muslim country.

Many in the EU also link Turkey's membership bid to a permanent peace deal for the war-divided island of Cyprus, which is among the countries likely to join the EU in 2004.

EU diplomats believe giving Turkey a date without pushing them to get breakaway Turkish Cypriots to accept a U.N. reunification plan for the island would waste a unique opportunity.

The United Nations is promoting a settlement for Cyprus, which has been divided since a Turkish invasion in 1974 following a short-lived coup staged by supporters of union with Greece.

Separately, foreign ministers Tuesday failed to agree on a $40 billion aid offer for the other membership candidates, pushing the issue onto the summit agenda. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Cyprus are expected to join the bloc in 2004.