The European Parliament has urged European Union leaders to open membership talks with Turkey when they meet in Brussels Thursday and Friday. The parliament voiced its support for the beginning of talks just after the head of the EU's executive body said the moment has come for negotiations on Turkey's membership in the 25-nation bloc to begin.
The decision that EU leaders must make at their two-day summit this week is whether to start entry talks with Turkey. They will not be deciding whether to let Turkey join the Union. But even the decision to start talks with a relatively poor, populous, overwhelmingly Muslim country sitting on the cusp between Europe and the Middle East has sparked a huge debate within the EU.
Doubts about whether Europe has been able to or ever can absorb its growing Muslim population has turned many ordinary Europeans against the idea of bringing Turkey into the EU. And many politicians are playing to those fears in the run-up to the summit. Opposition to Turkish membership is especially strong in Austria, France and Germany.
Richard Howitt, a British member of the European Parliament's Socialist bloc, says domestic political considerations could still thwart an EU decision to start negotiations with Turkey, despite a recommendation by the European Commission - the EU's executive body - that such talks begin. "The assessment was done," he said. "It was done by the European Commission. It showed that political and human rights and democracy criteria, known as the Copenhagen criteria had been met by Turkey. And it is only political intervention, perhaps some of the countries playing to their own electorates, that could get in the way between now and a positive decision."
Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the commission's president, told French television Wednesday that EU nations should recognize Turkey's efforts and set a date for talks to begin next year, although he acknowledged that Turkey is still not ready to join the bloc. Negotiations are expected to take at least 10 years. Analyst Kirsty Hughes, at the London School of Economics, says she expects the EU leaders to decide in favor of starting talks with Turkey.
"I think we're going to get the EU leaders saying 'yes' to Turkey, that it can start negotiations," she said. "That's going to be the big decision and the big plus. It's going to come wrapped with some slightly more conditional language, perhaps some slightly grudging language, but that's what we're looking for on Friday."
EU diplomats are working on a compromise package that will try to satisfy governments that oppose Turkey's eventual membership. One diplomat involved in putting together the statement says it will say that the negotiations will be open-ended and that their outcome cannot be guaranteed.
The European Parliament, in a non-binding resolution, called on EU leaders to open negotiations with Turkey. But the legislators also urged Turkey to recognize Cyprus and suggested Ankara acknowledge the mass killings of ethnic Armenians from 1915 to 1923.
Turkey has always denied that such killings occurred, and it refuses to recognize the government of Cyprus. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his country will say "no" to the EU if the bloc imposes what he calls "unacceptable conditions" on starting negotiations.
EU diplomats say the Armenian issue will not be used as a pre-condition for Turkish entry talks. But they say that the bloc's leaders will urge Turkey to sign a protocol extending its customs union with the EU to the 10 members that joined this year, one of which is Cyprus. That, they say, would signal a de-facto recognition of Cyprus.