ISTANBUL, Turkey – Saying they were at a historic crossroads, the European Union and Turkey resolved a final, contentious hurdle over the Mediterranean island of Cyprus and formally agreed Friday to enter into membership negotiations next fall.
Looking weary but content, European and Turkish leaders meeting in Brussels, Belgium, announced they had reached a compromise on Cyprus and cleared the way for talks to begin Oct. 3 that could eventually give the 25-nation bloc its first Muslim member. The decision is a major breakthrough in Turkey’s 41-year quest to join the European community. The EU on Thursday had proposed the October date, but said Turkey would have to signal de-facto recognition of Cyprus. After another day of often tense wrangling Friday, Turkey finally relented.
Turks here hailed the move closer to Europe and the stock market soared to a record high.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the EU invitation was validation of his nation’s “silent revolution.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso announced the compromise and the landmark decision to open talks.
“Today is a new beginning for Europe and for Turkey,” he said.
The potential deal-breaker had been Cyprus, which Turkey invaded in 1974 in response to a coup by Greek Cypriots attempting to unite the island with Greece. The island has been divided ever since; only Turkey recognizes the breakaway northern Cypriot state, while the Greek Cypriot south is internationally recognized and became a member of the EU in May.
EU leaders insisted Turkey would have to acknowledge Cyprus to begin membership talks. Erdogan balked, and heated discussions continued through Friday morning, delaying for hours the final ceremonies of the Brussels summit.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair was instrumental in finding a compromise, diplomats said.
In the compromise, Turkey agreed to extend its association agreement, a 1963 protocol that establishes relations with the EU, to the 10 countries that joined in May, including Cyprus. As part of the deal, Balkenende agreed to state publicly that the gesture was not the same as full political recognition.
Erdogan, at the news conference, said extending the protocol was a “technical” matter that “is in no way” recognition of Cyprus.
The Cyprus troubles have stubbornly defied diplomacy for decades. The United Nations brokered a deal last spring to unify the north and south. Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the deal but Greek Cypriots, under hard-liner President Tassos Papadopoulos, rejected it. They were allowed to join the EU anyway, and the Turkish Cypriots were kept out.
Ever since, Cyprus has vetoed attempts by the EU to end economic sanctions against the Turkish Cypriot north as a reward for approving the U.N. plan. Ankara, meanwhile, maintains 35,000 troops in the north.
The negotiation is not expected to finish until the year 2015 at the earliest, when Turkey’s population is likely to exceed that of Germany, currently the largest member of the bloc.