Turkey took a significant step Wednesday toward its long-cherished goal of joining the European Union when the E.U.'s executive branch proposed opening formal negotiations over membership for the predominantly Muslim nation.
The proposal from the European Commission needs to be endorsed by leaders of the union's 25 member states when they meet in December, and officials warned that many obstacles remained, including a requirement that Turkey modernize its penal code and improve its human rights record. Full membership could take a decade or longer, they said.
A larger obstacle is the reluctance of many European countries to further expand their largely Christian club to include a nation of nearly 69 million people that straddles the geographic, religious and cultural divide between Europe and the Middle East and is far poorer and more populous than most E.U. members.
Still, Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, declared that a strong, secure and self-confident Europe had "nothing to fear" from Turkey's admission. Wednesday's recommendation "is a qualified yes," Prodi told the European Parliament in presenting the commission's report.
The report "is flanked with a whole series of recommendations for monitoring and verifying what the situation is actually like," Prodi said, referring to political and social conditions in Turkey.
In Ankara, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul hailed the news as "a historic decision for Turkey and for Europe," the Reuters news agency reported. Mehmet Dulger, head of the foreign affairs commission in Turkey's parliament, said: "Justice has been done. We hope the rest will come."
The 30-person European Commission, which approved the proposal by consensus at a closed-door session with two members reportedly raising objections, stated in its decision that the talks would be "an open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand."
The commission said it would issue annual reports on Turkey's compliance with European standards. "The Commission will recommend the suspension of the negotiations in the case of a serious and persistent breach of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms on which the Union is based," it said.
Many European states have already raised reservations. President Jacques Chirac of France has pledged to hold a referendum before agreeing to admission. Olli Rehn, who is to become the European Union's new commissioner of enlargement, has suggested giving members the power to close their borders to Turkish migrants if admission leads to a flood of poor Turks seeking work. About 4 million Turks work in E.U. states, which have needed their cheap labor but which have been reluctant to welcome and absorb the newcomers.
Turkish officials have reacted angrily to proposals for special restrictions. In a speech in Strasbourg, France, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who heads a moderate Islamic political party, said Turkey had "done its task" in adopting legal and economic reforms -- including a recent decision to repeal a new law making adultery a criminal offense.
"Now the E.U. must do its task," he added, according to a BBC report. "They're the ones being tested now. If we don't want a clash of civilizations, but to succeed at reconciliation, Turkey must take its place in the E.U."
Beyond the cultural and economic concerns, some E.U. members fear that Turkey's membership would dilute their vision of a united, federalized Europe. The United States has supported Turkey's membership, leading some officials here to allege that the Bush administration was seeking to further weaken European unity.
Still, analysts said Wednesday's move meant that even many of those people with reservations were prepared to proceed, albeit cautiously.
"This is a big step forward," said Steven Everts, senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a London-based research group.