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European Union nervous about talks with mostly Muslim Turkey
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- European Union leaders agreed Thursday to open talks with Turkey next year on eventual EU membership, despite widespread misgivings about admitting such a large and mostly Muslim country.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed that the 25 EU leaders would propose Oct. 3 as the start date for the talks, which are expected to last for years.
The Turks had no immediate reaction. The government in Ankara had suggested a start date in April.
The proposal's stance on major obstacles in the negotiations also was unclear, including whether it would call for open-ended negotiations, include any demand that Turkey recognize the divided island of Cyprus or set limitations on the movement of Turkish workers within the EU. Those issues have been rejected by Turkey.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, would confer late Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in Brussels for the critical summit.
The prospect of Turkish membership has split governments and public opinion across the continent. Critics fear opening the door to a populous, mostly Muslim country would profoundly alter the 25-nation bloc's European and Christian character at a time when many Europeans are questioning multiculturalism.
For their part, the Turks have warned the bloc against imposing too many onerous conditions. Many Turks fear membership would threaten their own Muslim traditions.
The EU leaders met Thursday for a working dinner at the start of the two-day summit to try to resolve lingering differences standing in the way of a formal invitation to Ankara.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told reporters earlier that the major hurdle was Turkey's recognition of the Greek Cypriot-led government of Cyprus.
Mindful of widespread public misgivings, the president of the EU commission, the Union's executive branch, warned that Ankara still had to meet significant goals in human rights, the economy and democratic reforms.
Turkey "must go the extra mile, and give clear signals of its European future," Jose Manuel Barroso said ahead of the summit.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said EU leaders generally had a positive view of Turkish aspirations but added that some issues remained unresolved.
They included Ankara's refusal to recognize the Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus, which joined the EU in May. Barroso said Turkey cannot join the EU without recognizing all member states and urged Ankara to make a gesture "sooner rather than later."
Following a meeting with the Greek premier Thursday, Erdogan told reporters he expected the Cyprus issue to be resolved Friday but would not elaborate.
Later, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters that recognition of Cyprus "either directly or indirectly is out of the question."
Even if membership talks begin, Schroeder has estimated it could take 10 to 15 years for the Turks to join.
Admitting Turkey would extend the EU's borders to the frontiers of Syria, Iraq and Iran, admitting millions of Muslim citizens at a time when Europeans are uneasy about having so many Muslims within their countries.
That unease is based in part on terrorism fears but also on the feeling that many Muslims reject European values of secularism, women's equality and separation of religion and politics.
European concerns remain even though Turkey has been an avowedly secular state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.
Those concerns were heightened by the Nov. 2 slaying of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, allegedly killed by an Islamic radical angry over the artist's criticism of Muslim cultural values.
In comments published Thursday in Germany's Bild newspaper, Erdogan warned it would be "quite dangerous" for the EU to reject Turkey "because of its different culture and religion."
He said Turkey wields influence in the Balkans, Central Asia and the Middle East and that if Europe wants to play a major global role, "this path leads across Turkey."
Turkey would become the largest EU member since its population is expected to surpass Germany's by 2020. That would give Turkey considerable power since voting within the EU is weighted by population.
Nine conservative EU leaders, including from Austria and Greece, have proposed that if membership negotiations fail, the EU should open its markets to Turkey.
EU officials said one way to resolve the issue of Turkish recognition of Cyprus would be for Ankara to sign an accord extending its customs union with the EU to include the 10 new members. That would include Cyprus and constitute a form of recognition.
Cyprus has been split into a Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south since 1974, when Turkey invaded in response to an Athens-backed coup aiming to unite the island with Greece.
Only Ankara recognizes the breakaway Turkish Cypriot state in the north but not the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government in the south.