Nations Meet on Turkey EU Membership

The European Union (search) edged closer Monday to giving Turkey (search) the green light on membership talks, but jitters over bringing the relatively poor Muslim nation into the fold prevented a decision on a starting date.

EU leaders will have the final say at a summit in Brussels later this week, after foreign ministers from the 25-nation bloc failed Monday to set a start date and duration for talks.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, whose country is skeptical of Turkey's joining the bloc, said "negotiations will be long, open-ended and difficult" and stressed that membership was not yet a done deal.

The draft text of a declaration for the two-day summit starting Thursday, obtained by The Associated Press, hails Turkey for having made "decisive progress" in economic and political reforms.

Leaders also express confidence in Turkey's sustained reforms, "and vow to monitor Ankara's commitment to "fundamental freedoms and to full respect of human rights, (especially) the zero-tolerance policy relating to torture and ill-treatment" of prisoners.

Of particular concern to the EU is that the Turkish parliament approve laws on criminal procedures and the judicial police.

Four other laws, including one enacting a new penal code, have been adopted by the legislature, but must yet take legal effect.

The EU foreign ministers debated possible dates for talks to start, and conditions to attach to them to assuage fears in Western Europe of bringing Turkey into the bloc.

Opposition to Turkey's joining has come from Austria, Slovakia, Denmark and France.

"An exact date should not be set too early," Barnier said. France wants the talks to begin in late 2005 or 2006.

Entry negotiations with Ankara will likely last 10 or 15 years.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (search) told a German newspaper that his country wants a fair chance to meet the EU's membership criteria

"We want justice," the Passauer Neue Presse daily quoted him as saying. "We are trying to open a society and an economy that until now was very inward-looking."

The EU foreign ministers also delayed membership talks with Croatia until at least March to give Zagreb three months to bring an indicted war criminal, Gen. Ante Gotovina, to justice.