European Union leaders meeting in Brussels for a two-day summit are expected to decide whether, when, and under what conditions to begin membership talks with Turkey. There appears to be a consensus to start negotiations late next year, but EU leaders are still divided over the terms for the talks.
If all goes according to plan, an agreement will be made over dinner to approve negotiations with Turkey. Diplomats say a deal among the 25 EU members is within reach but that it is not yet wrapped up.
The prospect of a relatively poor, populous, mostly Muslim country eventually entering the European Union has split governments and public opinion in Europe.
Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, who heads the European Commission, the executive EU body, says talks on Turkey's accession to the group should be on the basis of full membership rather than the 'partnership' status advocated by more skeptical members like Austria, and which Turkey has rejected.
"We are not looking for some kind of halfway house or midway deal. If we start negotiations with Turkey, it should be with full European Union membership in mind," he said. "There must be no last-minute conditions, no new hurdles to overcome."
But at a time of growing fears among Europeans that Turkey's membership would alter the organization's character, Mr. Barroso appealed to Turkey to reach out to EU citizens and convince them that it is committed to European values.
More specifically, Mr. Barroso urged Turkey to recognize the internationally-backed ethnic-Greek government of Cyprus. "Cyprus will be sitting at the negotiating table when European Union membership talks begin for Turkey," he said. "So the question for Turkey is what kind of message does it send when it does not recognize all the members sitting at the table of the club you want to join?"
EU diplomats say Turkey should sign a protocol extending its customs union with the European Union to the 10 countries that joined the bloc this year, including Cyprus. That would signal a de-facto recognition of the Cypriot government. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he would only consider doing that after Turkey gets the go-ahead for starting membership talks.
Some EU countries are still insisting on stringent conditions for negotiations with Turkey. These include clauses preventing Turkish workers from flooding into other EU countries. The skeptics also want to make sure that Turkish membership is not guaranteed and that the negotiations could be suspended if problems arise.
Mr. Erdogan says Turkey will walk away if the European Union imposes too many conditions. He says Turkey will not join the club at any cost, especially if members impose added conditions before the start of negotiations. He says if the European Union imposes unacceptable conditions, Turkey will freeze relations and continue on its own path.
Diplomats say Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, will present the bloc's terms to Mr. Erdogan on Friday, before EU leaders approve the final deal.