STRASBOURG, France – The European Union (search) has recommended that Turkey be put on the path to full membership, a historic move that could push Europe's borders to the Middle East (search) and stoked fears among Europeans wary of bringing a poor Muslim country into the prosperous bloc.
Reflecting widespread misgivings, the 30-member EU executive commission on Wednesday set tough conditions to prevent Turkey from backtracking on sweeping democratic and human rights reforms, prompting a sharp response from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search).
"If the European Union declares itself to be a Christian club we should know this clearly," he said.
In Brussels, European Commission President Romano Prodi said the recommendation to start entry talks was a "a qualified yes" to Turkey, which has long sought to join the EU. "Our position is a positive one, but also a prudent, cautious one," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac said talks with Turkey could last 10-15 years "at a minimum."
It is now up to the EU's 25 leaders to approve the recommendation at a Dec. 17-18 summit in Brussels, paving the way for the start of entry talks with the overwhelmingly Muslim country of 71 million people as early as next year.
If the leaders say yes, Turkey would not actually join the union until around 2015. But the Wednesday's recommendation appears to have set the EU on a dramatic new course — a move that has worried many in Western European countries with large immigrants populations, like Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France and Belgium.
To assuage those fears, the commission gave no deadline for a final accession treaty with Turkey and suggested membership negotiations may be suspended if Turkey falters in its democratic reforms.
Erdogan bristled at any suggestion that Turkey was not a shoo-in to join the EU, and chided Chirac for seeking a referendum on Turkish EU membership, saying none of the 10 EU members that joined the bloc in May had to first win voter approval.
"It is unfair and will destroy the motivation of Turkey to stay the course on economic and political reforms to get into the EU," Erdogan said. Any reversal would "show disrespect to a country which has accelerated" economic and political reforms in recent years.
Erdogan said Turkey, like the EU's members, wants "global peace, (to) eradicate terrorism in the world and be successful in reconciling civilizations," and could be the union's "most important asset."
Turkey, which has aspired to EU membership for more than 40 years, has joined every Western economic and political organization open to it, including NATO.
Guenter Verhuegen, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said the EU could not deny Turkey's bid.
"The choice was very clear. Turkey was simply too good ... (its) progress was too good" to say no," he said. "We can trust Turkey that the country will continue ... improving the situation."
The commission's recommendation set rigid benchmarks for Turkey to meet in everything from food safety to cross-border banking fees.
Ankara may also face a contentious restriction on the number of workers it can send westward. The commission recommended a "safeguard clause" that could be invoked at any time to restrict the numbers of Turkish migrants in times of economic difficulty.
Verhuegen said opening negotiations with Turkey would not get Europe-wide backing if such an "emergency brake" were not included and acknowledged general fears of a mass migration of Turkish workers into the bloc once Turkey joins.
Under EU rules, citizens from member countries have the right to travel, live and work freely in any of the member states. But many fear mass Turkish immigration if the country were to join the EU. Restrictions on migrant workers were added when the 10 newest members joined.
Turkey's weak economy could also present a significant problem — the country' per capita income is about $4,000, a fraction of the EU average.
Turkish membership would bring Europe's borders to Syria and Iraq — a fact that opponents say moves Europe too close to the unstable Middle East.
"The unthinkable is becoming reality. The largest member state of the EU will not even be a European country," said EU lawmaker Philip Claeys, a member from Belgium's far-right Flemish Bloc party.
Mainstream leaders have also 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, where successive presidents including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush publicly called on the EU to absorb Turkey, a loyal NATO ally.
A key task for Turkey is to show that it is serious about eradicating torture, which Ankara has outlawed but which continues nevertheless, according to human rights groups.
The seeds of Turkish membership were sown in 1963 when the EU made Turkey an associate member. That status carried the prospect of future membership, but over the decades, European leaders put off a decision on whether Ankara should be allowed to join.
Not until 2002 did EU leaders say they would decide at the end of 2004 on whether to open entry talks.