European Union foreign ministers are set for a showdown with Austria on Sunday evening over the terms for launching EU entry talks with Turkey on Monday, with Vienna demanding a clear alternative to full membership.
Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer told parliament in Ankara that Turkey's historic ambition to join the wealthy European bloc was on an "irreversible path" and warned EU leaders that any new obstacles would erect a "wall of prejudice" and hamper Europe's progress.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana predicted in a newspaper interview that a last-minute deal would be found to resolve the dispute that has jangled nerves on the eve of the launch of Europe's most challenging accession process.
"I assume that we will succeed in reaching an agreement," he told Germany's Bild am Sonntag. "Decisions that involve Turkey were always reached at the last minute in the past."
But an anxious Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who will chair the EU meeting, he would not fly to Luxembourg until he has seen the negotiating mandate approved by the 25-nation bloc.
A Turkish official said Gul conveyed that message to Straw in a telephone call on Saturday amid intensive diplomacy to try to clear the final obstacle to Turkey's 42-year quest to start talks to join the wealthy Western bloc.
Straw is due to meet Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik shortly before the full EU foreign ministers' session to explore chances of a deal.
Austria has informally linked acceptance of opening talks with Turkey to an agreement to start frozen accession talks with its neighbour, Croatia, which hinge on an uncertain green light from a U.N. war crimes prosecutor.
EU president Britain has sought to separate the two issues by scheduling the conclusion of the negotiating mandate with Turkey for Sunday evening and holding back a crucial review meeting on Croatia with chief war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte until Monday morning.
Diplomats said Austria was isolated after France and Cyprus dropped their reservations. EU partners were hoping Vienna would back down once the polls closed in regional elections in Austria's Styria province on Sunday.
Some 80 percent of Austrians say they oppose Turkish membership, an even higher level of hostility than in other west European countries, and Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel says he has to take account of public opinion.
Austria is seeking to delete a key clause that says "the shared objective of the negotiations is accession" and replace it with wording making clear Turkey would be offered a lesser relationship if the Union felt unable to absorb it.
Ankara has made clear it would walk away rather than accept such a second-class status.
Turkey's AK party government, which has Islamist roots, has carried out extensive reforms to improve human and minority rights, the rule of law and civilian control over the military to meet EU criteria, but critics say serious obstacles remain to freedom of expression and religious freedom.
Supporters of Turkey's accession say it would boost Europe's geopolitical stability and prosperity, and help foster democracy and moderation in the Islamic world.
Opponents say Turkey is too poor, too populous, too Middle Eastern and too culturally different to integrate into Europe, Reuters reported.