| Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels. (AFP)
Brussels, Dec. 17 (Reuters): The EU and Turkey reached a historic agreement today on starting talks on admitting the large Muslim nation to the bloc after last minute haggling over Ankara's relationship with EU member Cyprus.
The 25 EU leaders agreed to open accession negotiations with Turkey on October 3, 2005, but said talks would be open-ended with no guaranteed outcome in a nod to deeply sceptical public opinion in much of western Europe.
The landmark deal, which could change the face of Europe and Turkey in coming decades, came after hours of wrangling between Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, the summit chairman, mainly over Cyprus.
'(It) is an historic event. It shows that those who believe there is some fundamental clash in civilisations between Christian and Muslim are actually wrong, that we can work together and we can cooperate together,' British Prime Minister Tony Blair said.
Turkey pledged unilaterally to sign a protocol extending its EU association agreement to 10 states which joined the bloc in May, including Cyprus, before it starts entry talks.
In return, Balkenende, holder of the EU presidency, would spell out that this was not tantamount to recognition of the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia, which Ankara has rejected until there is a settlement for the divided island.
Diplomats said the EU dropped a humiliating demand that Turkey initial the pact immediately today. At one point, Erdogan threatened to walk out after Cyprus demanded a written commitment. He was dissuaded by Balkenende, Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the diplomats said.
EU leaders kept summit guest UN secretary-general Kofi Annan waiting for one-and-a-half hours as they negotiated over Cyprus.
A Turkish official quoted Erdogan as telling Balkenende at one point: 'You are choosing 600,000 Greeks (Cypriots) over 70 million Turks, and I cannot explain this to my people.'
British foreign secretary Jack Straw played down the political significance of signing the so-called Ankara protocol, saying: 'It does not involve formal or informal recognition of the government of Cyprus and we have been trying to reassure the Turkish government about that.'
A British diplomat noted many countries had legally binding agreements with entities such as the Palestinian Authority or Taiwan without recognising them as states.
Turkey's accession process is certain to be long and fraught with membership at least a decade away.
It will force Turkey to transform its economy and society, and require the EU to revise fundamentally its two main spending policies ' farm subsidies and regional aid, which the poor nation would expect to draw on.
The EU decision made clear Turkey could not join before 2015.