The European Commission on Wednesday paved the way to a transformation of the European Union when it recommended that the 25-nation body begin membership talks with Turkey.

?We cannot imagine a future for Europe in which Turkey is not firmly on board,? said Romano Prodi, Commission president.

Turkey's political and business leaders hailed the ?historic? moment, in spite of tough conditions that will apply for the negotiations to proceed.

The Commission said the EU should have the right to restrict Turkish migration and said it should suspend negotiations if Turkey failed to deliver further reforms.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, said: ?We reached our first target today. I now expect good news on December 17? the date on which EU leaders make a final decision on the start of talks, which are likely to last a decade.

Tusiad, a Turkish business federation at the forefront of the campaign to join the EU, said the go-ahead for the talks was confirmation that Turkey was ?a European state where the rule of law was in place?. But the Commission said Turkey needed to push through some pending legal reforms to ?sufficiently fulfil? the criteria for the negotiations.

Fears about a possible influx of Turkish immigrants, big subsidies from the rest of the EU and continuing human rights and democratic concerns have overshadowed Turkey's 40-year bid to join the Union. The country has been a formal candidate for entry since 1999.

On Wednesday however, reaction in EU capitals was overwhelmingly positive to the report. ?Turkey is a key Nato ally we want her as an EU partner too,? said Tony Blair, UK prime minister and one of the biggest supporters of Turkish entry. ?I look forward to a decision by the European Council in December to start negotiations without delay.?

The Netherlands, which holds the EU presidency, said talks could begin in the second half of next year. Even Cyprus and Austria, two of the countries with the deepest misgivings about Turkish entry, say they will not block talks. The Commission's tough stance on negotiations ensured what Mr Prodi labelled ?virtually unanimous? backing among the 30 commissioners. They had earlier been split between sceptics about Turkey's entry into the EU and those who wanted a more positive endorsement.

However, G?nter Verheugen, the enlargement commissioner, said the sole aim of the talks was for Turkey to join the EU. ?There is no plan B,? he added.

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