The European Commission on Wednesday recommended the start of EU membership talks for Turkey but set stiff conditions to prevent it from backtracking on sweeping democratic and human rights reforms.

The decision was reached by a "large consensus" among commissioners, one EU official said, but no vote was taken. There was also no recommended date to start negotiations.

"It is a qualified yes," commission head Romano Prodi (search) told European parliament leaders. "It's flanked with a whole series of recommendations for monitoring and verifying what situation is actually like and specific recommendations."

EU Commissioner Franz Fischler (search) said that while Turkey had a long road ahead, there no longer was reason to reject its application.

"There is no more ground to be opposed fundamentally to the start of entry talks," he said.

While the recommendation boosted Ankara's long-standing aspirations to join the European club, the commission warned it would suspend or even halt EU membership negotiations over any serious and persistent failure to respect democracy and human rights.

EU Commissioner Antonio Vitorino (search) said the recommendation included conditions to suspend talks if there is a worsening of human rights. There was no deadline indicated for when talks should end.

If the European Commission's recommendation is approved by the 25 EU leaders at a December summit, entry talks could begin in early 2005, capping years of lobbying by Turkish leaders who say their country could form a bridge between Muslim countries and Europe.

Many Europeans — including some commissioners — are wary of admitting Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country of 71 million people, into the EU fold. Several commissioners have expressed skepticism about allowing in a secular Muslim nation with a weak economy and a questionable human rights record, whose projected population would be the largest in the EU by 2025.

The opening of membership talks would be warmly welcomed in Washington, which has for years pushed the EU to absorb Turkey, a loyal NATO ally that lies on the doorstep of the Middle East.