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Turkey Begins Membership Talks with European Union

The European Union has opened membership talks with Turkey, the first time a predominately Muslim nation has been considered for inclusion in the European confederation. The decision came after eleventh-hour negotiations among EU ministers to resolve objections to including Turkey.

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul arrived in Luxembourg in the middle of the night to attend the opening of talks.

The start of negotiations came only after Austria dropped its demand that Turkey be granted "special partnership" but not full membership in the trade bloc. In voicing her support for the start of talks, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik noted there are more than 250,000 Turks living in Austria, a country of eight million.

However, recent polls in Austria show only one in ten Austrians support the inclusion of Turkey in the E.U. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw downplayed cultural and religious tensions between Austria and Turkey, dating back hundreds of years to the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires -- calling the opening of talks a "historic day" for Europe and the world.

"To be able to bring this very large Muslim-dominated country into the European Union which has, frankly, previously -- obviously -- been dominated by countries with a Christian heritage is a way at this critical time of binding these two great religions together, proving there's no clash of civilizations, merely a profound divide between civilized people across the world and a tiny minority who wish to wreck our civilization," said the foreign secretary.

But French President Jacques Chirac said Turkey needs to undergo a cultural revolution before it can join the European community. The U.S. supports Turkey's admittance into the E.U. Sean McCormick is the assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Public Affairs. "We believe a Turkey firmly anchored in Europe will be an even more reliable partner for the trans-Atlantic family and a positive force for advancing peace, prosperity, and democracy."

In recent years, Ankara has implemented political and economic reforms, intended to appease EU members opposed to its inclusion.

One key political issue remains: Turkey does not recognize EU member Cyprus. Ankara only acknowledges a renegade Turkish Cypriot state in the north of the divided Mediterranean island.