The European Commission has given Turkey the go-ahead to begin talks to join the European Union, but set a series of tough conditions and warned that there is no guarantee the negotiations will be successful. That the final decision now rests with EU leaders who will discuss the issue at a summit in December.
The head of the European Commission, the EU executive body, announced the long-awaited decision to members of the European Parliament. Romano Prodi gave a cautious recommendation.
"And the response today is 'yes', with respect to criteria and opening negotiations, but it is a qualified yes," he announced.
Among the conditions Mr. Prodi and his enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, laid out was that the commission reserves the right to suspend negotiations with Turkey if Ankara backtracks in any way on implementation of democratic and human rights reforms that it has enacted to meet EU standards.
That drew a sharp response from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was visiting the Council of Europe, a human rights organization based in the French city of Strasboug.
Mr. Erdogan says the European Union should apply the same criteria to Turkey that it has to other applicants. But he called the Commission's report balanced and said he hopes that Turkey's accession negotiations will begin early next year.
The Commission did not set a starting date for the talks. That is up to EU leaders. But EU officials have said they do not expect the negotiations to begin until late 2005.
Despite growing political and popular opposition in the European Union to Turkey's membership, Commissioner Verheugen told reporters in Brussels that there was no other option but to give Turkey the green light to begin talks.
"In my view, the choice was very clear. It was a choice between the 'yes' and 'not yet'. And Turkey was simply too good to allow us to say it has to be 'not yet'. Progress was simply too strong and the involvement of civil society in Turkey was simply too positive in order to allow us to say 'no'," explained Commissioner Verheugen.
Turkey has carried out far reaching political reforms, especially during the past two years under Mr. Erdogan's leadership. Mr. Verheugen says it will take time to fully implement those reforms and that the accession negotiations will act as a spur for EU standards to become rooted in Turkey.
"And we need the process of reform in Turkey in order to see Turkey as a stable country based on the same values that we have in the European Union and firmly anchored in the western world," he said.
Mr. Verheugen says the European Union will carefully monitor the implementation of new laws against torture and will make sure there is constant improvement in areas such as women's and minority rights and freedom of expression and religion.