BRUSSELS, Belgium – Turkey has accepted a compromise formula on the recognition of Cyprus (search), paving the way for launching talks next year on Ankara's membership in the European Union (search), the Dutch prime minister said Friday.
Negotiations on allowing Turkey to join the EU will begin Oct. 3, 2005, European leaders said after the deal was reached with Turkey over the divided island of Cyprus at the two-day summit. The talks still could take 10 or 15 years before Turkey joins.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search) "has indicated in a declaration that he is willing to sign a protocol" expanding Turkey's customs agreement with the European Union to include Cyprus and nine other EU states that joined in May, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende (search) said.
Balkenende, whose country holds the current EU presidency, said signing the protocol was "not a formal legal recognition" of the Greek Cypriot-led government "but it is a step that can lead to progress in this field."
EU diplomats said they considered Ankara's signing of the protocol to constitute a de facto recognition of Cyprus. Turkey opposes an early, formal recognition of the Cypriot government.
"The adoption of this protocol is in no way recognition, and I've put this on the record during my last speech" at the EU Council of Ministers, Erdogan said at a news conference.
Erdogan described the compromise over Cyprus as "important progress" for Turkish interests.
"We did not get 100 percent, but I'd say we succeeded," he said.
The EU first wanted the Turks to initial the customs agreement Friday and then agree to sign before the start of accession talks. The Turks said they were not prepared for any direct or indirect recognition of Cyprus and for a time it appeared that Turkey might refuse the offer of membership talks.
The compromise followed intensive negotiations that ran well past midnight and continued Friday morning, forcing a delay of several hours in the formal summit schedule.
"Turkey has accepted the hand we offered to them," Balkenende said.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he was "very satisfied" with the compromise, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair called it a "historic event."
"It shows that those who believe there is a fundamental clash of civilizations between Christians and Muslims are actually wrong; that they can work together; that we can cooperate together. And I think that is of fundamental importance for the future of peace and prosperity," Blair said.
But Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said he would put the issue of Turkey's entry into the EU to the voters in a referendum. Turkish membership is widely opposed in Austria and France, which will also hold a referendum.
Differences over Cyprus, split between a Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north, have long been a source of irritation between Turkey and Western Europe. Turkey is the only country that recognizes the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north; it does not recognize the official government in the south.
Turkey still maintains troops in northern Cyprus 30 years after invading to block a coup by Greek Cypriots who wanted to unite the island with Greece.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul had told reporters Thursday that recognition of Cyprus — "either directly or indirectly" — was "out of the question."
In the draft of a summit statement on the membership negotiations, the EU leaders urged Turkey to stay the course on political reforms and push for "zero tolerance" of torture and mistreatment.
Membership talks will be "open-ended," meaning they will not automatically lead to membership, although that is the goal. If the talks fail to lead to full membership, the EU will not turn its back on Turkey and will "anchor Turkey in European structures," according to the draft text.
The draft also makes clear negotiations may be stopped if Turkey backslides and does not push through the economic and political reforms needed to qualify for EU membership.
Turkey would become the largest EU member, since its population is expected to surpass Germany's 83 million people by 2020. That would give Ankara considerable power, as voting within the EU is weighted by population.
Ankara had warned the EU against imposing too many onerous conditions, and many Turks worry membership would threaten their own Muslim traditions.
Admitting Turkey would extend the EU's borders to the frontiers of Syria, Iraq and Iran at a time when Europeans are uneasy about having so many Muslims in their countries.
That unease is based in part on terrorism fears but also on the feeling that many Muslims reject European values of secularism, women's equality and separation of religion and politics. European concerns remain even though Turkey has been an avowedly secular state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.