BRUSSELS (AFP)–Turkey came a step closer to fulfilling a 40-year-old dream when the European Commission recommended that the EU should begin membership talks with Ankara.
But the Commission set a series of tough conditions and warned there was no guarantee of a successful outcome.
It set no start date for the talks–leaving it up to EU leaders who must decide at a December summit whether to accept its recommendations and–if so–when to begin negotiations expected to last at least a decade.
"The Commission’s answer is yes…it is a conditional yes," European Commission President Romano Prodi told the European Parliament–adding that Europe had nothing to fear from Turkish EU membership.
The EU executive’s proposals–widely leaked over the past week–were approved at a meeting Wednesday despite concerns from some that Turkey is simply too big and too different to join the European club.
"A Europe that is sure of itself–has a constitution and strong institutions and policies–is returning to economic growth and is based on a strong model of peace–prosperity–and solidarity has nothing to fear from the integration of Turkey," said Prodi.
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul hailed the decision as a "historic step" for both Turkey and the 25-nation EU. Ankara wants the talks to start in the first half of next year.
Turkey–an official candidate since 1999–has been waiting to join the European club for four decades but its efforts have stumbled over its civil rights record.
Germany–home to Europe’s largest Turkish immigrant community–welcomed the report and said Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder would vote in favor of starting membership negotiations at the Brussels summit.
A German government spokesman called it a "very balanced report," while Schroeder–speaking during a visit to New Delhi–was confident Turkey would receive the support of most EU leaders.
But many Europeans are alarmed at the prospect of the EU taking in a poor–populous–and mostly Muslim state that has 90 percent of its territory in Asia and which borders Iraq–Iran–and Syria.
Turkey’s population of 71 million is greater than the 10 countries that joined the EU earlier this year combined.
The Commission on Wednesday said it "considers that Turkey sufficiently fulfills the political criteria" for membership talks but warned that these could be suspended–or even broken off.
"The Commission will recommend the suspension of the negotiations in the case of a serious and persistent breach of the principles of liberty–democracy–respect for human rights–and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law on which the Union is founded," said the report.
It praised the Turkish government for "far-reaching" reforms already carried out to bring the country up to European political and social norms.
But more must be done to fight corruption–stamp out torture–improve freedom of expression and of religion–and to boost women’s and minority rights–it said.
No specific timeline is given for the talks–but the Commission said that "the necessary preparations for accession will last well into the next decade."
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara hopes to start EU negotiations in the first half of next year–leading to membership in a "reasonable period of time."
"We hope to bring a long-travelled road to its final lap with the initiation of accession negotiations in the first half of 2005," he said in Strasbourg–France–shortly before the commission signed off on its report.
The Commission has also said that Turkish membership could cost the EU–which is currently home to nearly four million Turkish immigran’s–between 16.5 and 27.5 billion euros a year by 2025.
But although it has an array of caveats–the core message was good news for Ankara.
One cloud hanging over the whole project is a pledge by French President Jacques Chirac to hold a referendum on Ankara’s EU hopes. In theory–such a vote could simply reject Turkish EU entry–regardless of what happens in the negotiations.
The next head of the European Commission–Jose Manuel Durao Barroso–said Monday he welcomed the idea of referendums in EU member countries.
The commission meanwhile confirmed Wednesday that Romania and Bulgaria are on track to join the EU in 2007.