European Union leaders have agreed to start talks on Turkey's membership in the bloc in October of 2005, but they will ask Turkey to recognize the ethnic Greek government of Cyprus before negotiations begin.
Starting membership negotiations with Turkey has been a controversial subject within the EU. Many of the 25 member countries worry that eventually bringing in a relatively poor, populous, overwhelmingly Muslim country like Turkey could change the EU's character.
But the EU managed to agree that talks should begin, although it made clear that the negotiations will be long and that there is no guarantee that Turkey will ever join the group.
Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, emerged after hours of negotiation with his colleagues to announce the deal to reporters. "We can start negotiations with Turkey. It will start on the third of October next year. The goal of negotiations is accession, but there's not a guarantee of the outcome," he said.
Mr. Balkenende said that, if the negotiations fail for any reason, the EU will still try to anchor Turkey to European institutions.
Although the Dutch prime minister did not specifically say so, other leaders told reporters that Turkey will have to sign a protocol implicitly recognizing the ethnic Greek government of Cyprus before it can begin membership talks. Turkey has so far refused to do so, although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that he could consider such a move.
Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the head of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, urged Turkey to accept the EU's offer. "Tonight, the European Union has opened its door to Turkey. I genuinely believe that Turkey should be glad to accept. It shows clearly the end goal. The end goal is membership," he said.
How Turkey reacts to the EU offer is the big question now. Not only does it have to agree to tacitly recognize Cyprus. It also faces other possible conditions, such as checks on migration flows to other EU countries. The ball is now in Turkey's court, and Mr. Balkenende says discussions on such issues will continue on Friday.