The European Union says it will forge ahead with a plan to open membership talks with Turkey in October despite widespread misgivings in Europe about letting the predominantly Muslim nation into the bloc. The EU says the negotiations will be open-ended and that Turkish membership is not inevitable.
The 25-member European Commission, the EU executive body, held what one of its members described as a lengthy, lively, argumentative debate on whether to begin the October talks on schedule and how to conduct the negotiations.
In the end, says EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, his colleagues decided that the EU has to stick to its commitments to start the talks, as agreed by EU leaders last December, despite fears that the bloc is expanding too far and too fast.
"It is a matter of credibility for the European Union and also for Turkey, and, in my view, it is now important to get started and give Turkey a fair chance to prove whether it will be able to meet fully all the conditions of membership during this long and possibly winding road," said Olli Rehn.
Negotiations on Turkey's accession to the EU are expected to take a decade. And, says Mr. Rehn, an outcome resulting in Turkish membership is not guaranteed.
"The clear objective, the shared objective of negotiations is accession," he said. "The negotiations are open-ended. We cannot guarantee any automatic result, and, in any case, Turkey will have to be anchored to the European structures through the strongest possible bond."
Hostility to bringing a populous, poor, mostly Muslim country like Turkey into the EU was a factor in the recent rejection by French and Dutch voters of the EU's draft constitution. Some political leaders, like French interior minister and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy, have called for further EU expansion to be put on hold indefinitely. Others, like German opposition leader Angela Merkel, have suggested that Turkey be granted a so-called "privileged partnership" rather than full membership in the club.
Mr. Rehn says such talk came up on Wednesday in the debate within the commission.
"There is no denying that the privileged partnership was raised in the debate and I think it is a fact of life that the privileged partnership will be a part of the debate in the months and years to come," continued EU Enlargement Commissioner .
Although Mr. Rehn says he expects a Europe-wide public debate on what kind of relationship the EU should have with Turkey, he believes the long negotiating process itself will encourage the implementation of further reforms, more democracy and greater respect for human rights and the rule of law in Turkey.