EU without Turkey 'will be just a Christian club'

Ankara, Turkey - Turkey's prime minister warned the European Union yesterday that it faced a choice between becoming a global power or a "Christian club" as it struggled to overcome a last-minute hurdle to the opening today of membership negotiations with his overwhelmingly Muslim country.

As thousands of nationalists demonstrated in Ankara against both the EU and his government, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Europe would squander the chance to overcome longstanding Christian-Muslim suspicions if it stepped back from its commitment to full membership for Turkey.

Austria is insisting that the EU offer less than full membership for Turkey as an option.

Ankara says it will not attend today's ceremony to mark the opening of its accession process if the bloc's foreign ministers, who were meeting last night to address the issue, step back from their commitment to full membership.

"This is a test for the EU," Mr Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development party in a regular Sunday address. "The EU will either decide to become a global actor or it must accept that it is a Christian club."

Mr Erdogan's comment reflects a central theme of his campaign to get Turkey into the EU - that doing so would help to build a bridge between Christian and Muslim countries.

He said Turkey's future did not depend on membership, but he claimed that the future of relations between Christianity and Islam did.

"This is a crucial meeting for the future of the EU," said Jack Straw, foreign secretary, who was due to meet Ursula Plassnik, his Austrian counterpart, before chairing last night's last minute meeting of all 25 EU foreign ministers. "I don't want to contemplate failure. .. It would represent a failure for the EU given the decision we made in December [to invite Turkey for talks]," Mr Straw said.

Austria has demanded that the EU should offer Turkey the possibility of a fallback "partnership" should the talks not succeed, but Turkey and almost all other EU governments insist that the negotiations with Ankara must be focused exclusively on membership.

Negotiations were complicated further last night after Austria's ruling People's party lost a regional election in Styria. Nevertheless, Austria's objections have given further ammunition to critics of Mr Erdogan and the EU inside Turkey.

Several thousand supporters of the hardline National Action party demonstrated in Ankara yesterday against the government and Brussels, claiming the prime minister had already made too many concessions to meet the basic EU criteria for the accession to begin.