The European Union has begun membership talks with Turkey, despite deep public skepticism in Europe that the bloc will ever manage to absorb the populous, overwhelmingly Muslim nation. The European Union has also restarted frozen membership negotiations with Croatia.
Turkey has sought membership in the European Union for more than 40 years, and, last December, the 25-nation bloc agreed to begin accession talks with Ankara. But EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg took 30 hours to overcome Austria's insistence that Turkey should be offered an option short of full membership, a condition that was unacceptable to Ankara.
After accepting the EU's final offer, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul flew to Luxembourg for a brief, late-night ceremony marking the first formal session of negotiations. He called the moment historic and said Turkey is stepping into a new era.
"Turkey has obtained the perspective of full membership, and there is no alternative," he said. "When the time comes, we will become full members, and we will overcome the obstacles. It will be worth the effort."
More than half of the EU's citizens are against Turkey's membership in the European club because it is too big, too poor and too Muslim. But Britain, which holds the EU rotating presidency and mediated the successful outcome to the Luxembourg talks, believes that firmly anchoring Turkey in the West will allow it to become a democratic beacon for its neighbors in the Middle East.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking to reporters in Luxembourg, dismissed widespread public skepticism about how a predominantly Muslim country could fit into a largely Christian Europe.
"We are showing tonight that it is not about religion, religious differences," he said. "It is about values. It is about being bound in one set of values of our civilization."
Though it is not directly involved in the EU-Turkey negotiations, the United States has reassured Ankara on a side issue in the talks. Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has been resisting calls to allow Cyprus to join the military alliance.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Turkish leaders in recent days to discuss the Cyprus issue and restate Washington's long-standing support for Turkish membership in the European Union.
But Turkey knows that this is just the beginning of a long and difficult road toward full membership in the European Union that is likely to take at least a decade. Austria's concerns about the EU capacity to absorb Turkey are also strongly felt in France and Germany.
Austria acquiesced to the deal to let Turkey begin membership talks after U.N. chief war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte told the EU foreign ministers that Croatia, whose EU accession Austria has long championed, is cooperating with her tribunal.
"My assessment is extremely positive. I can certify that Croatia is fully cooperating with us," she said.
EU membership talks with Croatia were supposed to have started last March, but were put on hold because Ms. Del Ponte accused the Croats of failing to find and hand over general Ante Gotovina, who is charged with war crimes for his role in a 1995 offensive against Serb civilians. Only last Friday, on a visit to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, Ms. del Ponte repeated that accusation.
"You cannot imagine how disappointed I am, because since we started closely to work together for cooperation, we have always had the same problem. Gotovina is still at large," she said.
Ms. del Ponte denied that she had been pressured to render a more favorable verdict on Croatian cooperation so as to get Austria to reluctantly bless the beginning of Turkey's entry talks. But British Foreign Secretary Straw and the other ministers immediately authorized the beginning of membership negotiations with the Balkan nation.
"At the moment that she said to us that Croatia was fully cooperating without qualification, the issue resolved itself, as simple as that," he said.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was ecstatic over the EU decision.
"This is a great day for Croatia, and I am very proud to stand here as the prime minister of a country that has just started the accession negotiations with the European Union," he said.
EU diplomats say the talks with Croatia could be slowed or halted if the country were judged to be backsliding on its commitment to hand over general Gotovina. But in contrast to Turkey, Croatia's journey to full EU membership will be relatively short. It hopes to be in the union by 2009.