EU Turkey Clinch Deal to Launch Entry Talks

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters)–Turkey and the European Union (EU) clinched a historic deal to launch membership talks on Monday–despite deep public skepticism over whether the wealthy Western bloc will ever be able to absorb the Muslim nation.

The opening ceremony was delayed until close to midnight by nearly two days of fierce wrangling over Austrian and Turkish objections to the EU’s proposed negotiating mandate–reflecting profound distrust on both sides.

"We reached agreement–I am going to Luxembourg," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters as he left the headquarters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara to fly to meet the 25 EU foreign ministers.

Austria eventually accepted that the shared goal of the negotiations would be accession–not the lesser "privileged partnership" which many conservatives and Christian Democrats across Western Europe had sought.

In return–the EU made clear that its capacity to embrace the vast–poor NATO ally strategically located on the borders of Europe and the Middle East would be a key factor in the pace of Turkey’s integration–as well as Ankara’s progress in meeting strict criteria.

Negotiations are expected to last at least a decade and at least two EU members–France and Austria–have promised their voters a final say on Turkish accession in referendums.

Turkey now faces a marathon effort to transform its political–economic and social system and implement 80,000 pages of EU law.

Turkey had held up a deal for hours in a final wrangle over Cyprus after British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had overcome Austrian deman’s to offer Ankara a status short of membership.

Gul’s plane waited on the tarmac at Ankara airport and frustrated EU foreign ministers cooled their heels–most of them in the dark on the details of Straw’s negotiations.

The United States lent a hand to try to rescue the stalled talks after Turkey objected to a clause which hardliners in Ankara said could affect its ability to keep Cyprus out of NATO.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telephoned Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to assure him that the proposed EU negotiating framework would not impinge on NATO.

"We are basically saying: cut whatever deal you can get at the EU and don’t worry that somehow it ties your hands at NATO–because we don’t think it does," a State Department official said.

Failure to start the talks would have dealt a blow to political reform and foreign investment in Turkey and would also have deepened a sense of crisis in Europe–after defeats for the draft EU constitution in France and the Netherlands–and the failure in June to agree on a long-term budget for the bloc.

But the tortuous nature of the final deal could leave a bitter taste on both sides–foreshadowing years of touch negotiations to come in an atmosphere of mutual disenchantment.

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