BRUSSELS -- European Union leaders agreed yesterday to open negotiations with Turkey next year on eventual EU membership, but the Turkish premier said more talks were needed -- presumably over the contentious issue of Cyprus -- before he could accept the offer.
Despite widespread public opposition, the 25 EU leaders proposed Oct. 3 as the start date for the talks, which are expected to last for years. Ankara had hoped for a start date in April.
Following a two-hour meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende said no deal had been reached and talks would continue today.
"We realized very big issues are at stake," said Balkenende, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
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.
One of the key hurdles is the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has been split into a Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south for three decades.
The EU offer would require Turkey to grant effective recognition of Greek Cypriot-led Cyprus, which joined the EU in May, by the time the talks begin -- something the Turks have refused to do.
"The recognition of Cyprus either directly or indirectly is out of the question," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told Turkish reporters before the EU announcement.
Erdogan later told Turkish reporters to "be calm" and wait for today's meetings. "May it all be for the best," he added.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Erdogan told him his government was ready to recognize Cyprus but needed time to put the proposal before his parliament.
Turkish Cypriots voted to accept a UN proposal to reunify the island, but Greek Cypriots refused.
Despite the uncertainty, EU officials hailed their offer as a historic step and urged Turkey to accept it.
"Tonight the European Union has opened its door to Turkey . . . making a balanced offer," said Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. "I genuinely believe this is an offer that Turkey should be glad to accept."
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said the EU tried to overcome the Cyprus issue by requiring Turkey to sign an agreement before the talks extending its customs union to all EU members -- including Cyprus. That would constitute a form of recognition.
Verhofstadt said the talks would be aimed at full membership -- a Turkish demand -- although "the outcome is not guaranteed."
In Turkey, many Turks welcomed the EU decision but expressed concern about the many difficulties still facing the country's bid to become the first Muslim member of the bloc.
"Our standard of living will improve as will human rights," Mutlu Gunel, a 20-year-old business student said at a bar in Istanbul. "But I wonder if the EU will always be making new impositions. Now it's Cyprus, later it will be something else."
Serdar Denktash, foreign minister of the Turkish Cypriot state, said he didn't think it was possible to resolve the Cyprus impasse in just 10 months.
Cyprus has been split into a Turkish Cypriot north and 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 it does not recognize the official government in the south.
Barroso had said Turkey cannot join the EU without recognizing all member states and urged Ankara to make a gesture "sooner rather than later."
"We have given Turkey enough time to approve in its parliament the possibility of recognizing Cyprus," Berlusconi said. "To enter into a family you have to recognize all members of the family."
Barroso also warned that Ankara must meet significant goals in human rights, the economy, and democratic reforms.
Even if membership talks begin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has estimated it could take 10 to 15 years for Turkey to join.