"It is for Turkish people to decide whether it is in Turkey's interest to join the European Union, but ... it is in the European Union's interest for Turkey to be inside the EU," Straw told reporters here after meeting his Turkish counterpart Abd Allah Gul.

Turkey has been a formal candidate for EU membership since 1999, but is the only country so far not to have started accession negotiations with the bloc.

EU leaders will decide in December whether Ankara has made sufficient progress in meeting the bloc's political and economic norms to sit down at the negotiating table.

Straw praised NATO-member Turkey for the "huge amount of progress" it has made to improve its democracy and human rights record, which he said was acknowledged by all European leaders.

"I hear very few arguments (against Turkey's accession) because the progress towards setting a date is something which has been agreed unanimously by heads of state, government and foreign ministers in the EU," he said.

"We look forward to a positive decision from the European Council to set a clear timescale for negotiations in December this year," he added.

Political criteria

He also offered his country's help in bringing Turkey up to European standards in order to begin membership talks with the European Union.

"We have been very strong supporters of Turkey's membership of the EU... We are ready to give any support we can ... to Turkey in order to make sure the criteria are met"

Jack Straw,
British Foreign Secretary

"We have been very strong supporters of Turkey's membership of the EU... We are ready to give any support we can ... to Turkey in order to make sure the criteria are met," he added.

Turkey says it has met most of the political criteria required to start negotiations. But Brussels has pointed to some shortcomings, including fundamental freedoms, the political influence of the army and the rights of its sizeable Kurdish minority.

Earlier on Wednesday, Straw attended a ceremony to commemorate the victims of a wave of bombings in Istanbul in November which killed 63 people, including British consul Roger Short.

After meeting Gul, Straw left for Pakistan for talks with President Pervez Musharraf.