Turkey has accepted an offer by the European Union to start membership talks, after resolving an impasse on Cyprus that could have sabotaged Turkey's 40 year quest to join the organization.
The deal came after hours of haggling between EU leaders and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The European Union agreed late Thursday to begin accession negotiations with Turkey in October of next year, but only if Turkey recognized the internationally accepted ethnic-Greek government of Cyprus, a condition Turkey had refused to meet.
Finally, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende emerged to tell reporters that Turkey had accepted a compromise formula. Turkey will extend its customs agreement with the EU to the bloc's 10 new members, including Cyprus, but will not recognize the Cypriot government directly.
"Turkey has accepted the hand we offered to them," said Jan Peter Balkenende.
Asked by a reporter if Turkey's willingness to sign on to such a formula amounted to recognition of the Greek Cypriot government, Mr. Balkenende said "it's not what you can call a formal legal recognition," he said. "But it's a step that can lead to progress in this field."
Mr. Erdogan, too, insisted that his agreement to extend the customs protocol to Cyprus does not mean that Turkey is directly or indirectly recognizing the Cypriot government.
In proposing the compromise formula, EU diplomats had said it would constitute tacit Turkish recognition of Cyprus.
With each side interpreting the deal as it wished, EU officials hailed the agreement as a step that will eventually change the face of Europe, even though the bloc has made it clear there is no guarantee that Turkey will ever join the Union.
The negotiations could take 10 years or more, and Turkey may never join the EU if it can not satisfy the other members that it has met their criteria, including modernizing its economy and adopting European-style civil liberties.
Still, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, who heads the European Commission, the EU's executive body, hailed the accord as a new beginning for Turkey and for the European Union.
"I genuinely believe that we have a decision today that is good for Turkey and good for the European Union," said Jose Manuel Durao Barroso. "It responds to the needs of both sides and allows us to go ahead. This is a day on which the people of Turkey should rejoice on their new European future. But, as we stand at the historic crossroads for Turkey and the European Union, my message to the people of Turkey is very clear: this is not the end of the process. This is the beginning."
Mr. Barroso says it is now up to Turkey to show its commitment to EU values and ideals. That is an indication of how much doubt there is within the EU about whether Turkey can ever be regarded as a European nation.
As if to underscore that point, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel says he will hold a referendum on whether Turkey should be allowed to join. France, too, has proposed such a vote once Turkey completes its accession negotiations.
So, even though Turkey has received a green light to begin talks, it is embarking on a road still fraught with obstacles. Whether it will ever be able to join the European Union is an open question.