PARIS, Dec. 17 -- The European Union and Turkey agreed Friday to open membership talks next year for the Islamic country after the two sides overcame a snag over Turkey's relationship with the divided island of Cyprus.
European leaders meeting in Brussels averted a crisis and a threatened walkout by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by backing down from a demand that Turkey immediately recognize Cyprus, an E.U. member. As a compromise, Turkey agreed to extend an existing trade accord to the newest 10 E.U. members, which include Cyprus -- a kind of de facto recognition, but short of what European leaders had wanted.
The European Union avoided a walkout by Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
(Pool Photo Yves Herman -- AP)
"It means that they indirectly recognize Cyprus, but that is something which will have to evolve along the way," a Scandinavian diplomat said, describing the talks as "tense and uncertain" until the end.
Cyprus, a Mediterranean island nation, has been essentially divided since a 1974 Turkish invasion following an abortive coup by Greek Cypriot supporters of union with Greece. A breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north is recognized only by Turkey.
The inclusion of Turkey in the E.U. would extend the union's borders eastward to Syria, Iran and Iraq, and for the first time bring in a country whose land mass lies mostly outside Europe.
The decision to open the accession talks does not guarantee that Turkey will join the union. The final text of the communique issued Friday called the discussions "open-ended" with no guarantee of membership.
The current 25 E.U. members have laid down tough conditions for Turkey on improving its human rights record, and the majority of people in many European countries are still either ambivalent or openly hostile to the poor, Islamic country of about 70 million people joining what has been a relatively prosperous group of countries with similar histories and Christian heritage.
Negotiations are expected to drag on for more than a decade. And if the talks succeed, E.U. leaders said existing members would have the final say on whether Turkey could join, and under what conditions. For example, one constraint is a possible brake on the free movement of labor, an E.U. pillar, but one that has stoked fears that Turkey's membership would lead to a massive influx of poor laborers moving west in search of jobs.
The decision to open talks with Turkey comes as many European countries are discussing the problems they have had assimilating Muslim populations -- a debate accentuated by the brutal slaying last month of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands by a young Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent.
The E.U. countries with populations most hostile to Turkish membership are some of those with the largest Muslim populations in Europe. For example, in France, a country with a Muslim population of 10 percent, a recent poll for Le Figaro newspaper found that 67 percent of the people surveyed were opposed to Turkey's membership in the E.U. In Germany, which has a large Turkish minority, 55 percent of respondents in the same poll were opposed to Turkey joining the EU.
"It has to do with Turkey being large, poor and Muslim -- and the first one would be enough," said Katinka Barysch, a researcher with the London-based research organization, the Center for European Reform. "The opposition to Turkey is largest in countries with the largest Muslim communities -- Germany, the Netherlands, France. They are looking at the immigrant communities that have proven most difficult to integrate."
Many European leaders have said they feel a commitment was made to Turkey as far back as 1963 for eventual E.U. membership talks, noting that the prospect of joining the union could encourage the country to continue pursuing economic, political and social reforms. Many leaders also expressed a need to send a positive signal that the European Union was not an exclusively Christian club.
But by opening talks with Turkey, many leaders, including President Jacques Chirac of France, appear to be moving far ahead of public opinion at a time when the concept of an expanded Europe is under attack by skeptical populations and anti-E.U. parties that have gained strength in recent elections.
Chirac has promised French voters that they would be allowed to decide on Turkey's eventual E.U. membership in a referendum.
Some opponents of the membership have said Turkey would weaken the union by making it less cohesive and rendering decision-making nearly impossible.
"The integration of Turkey is the breakdown of the European project," said Herve Morin of France, a member of Parliament from the Union for French Democracy party. "We don't have a common history, culture or vision. The European identity is built on a common history, a Judeo-Christian culture, a culture of human rights and the enlightenment ideas."
Other opponents said the decision to open talks with Turkey illustrated a divide between European leaders and their populations. "The gap between the elite and the masses is growing wider," said Nigel Farage, spokesman for Britain's anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party. "This is undemocratic, it's anti-democratic, and it's damned dangerous."
Special correspondent Stina Lunden contributed to this report.