EU foreign ministers discuss relationship with candidate member and strategic partner Turkey

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers sought to step beyond their vexed relationship with Turkey and instead look for ways to deepen ties with a nation that is becoming a key player on the global stage even as talks to join the bloc languish.

Underscoring the deep divisions that remain within the 27-nation EU, British Foreign Minister William Hague said the process of admitting Turkey needs to speed up, while his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle advocated building the relationship outside the framework of Ankara's membership bid.

"It's very important to show some momentum and the UK will be trying to make sure that happens over the next few months," Hague said of the accession talks.

Standing just meters away from Hague in the cobbled courtyard of Brussels' Egmont Palace, Westerwelle told reporters the EU "would be well advised to build up relations" with Turkey instead of focusing on membership talks.

Negotiations for Turkey to join the EU have made little progress since starting in 2005, with France and Germany both expressing opposition to Turkey's bid. Ankara's relationship with the divided island of Cyprus, an EU member, is a key stumbling block.

Cyprus was split into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.

The EU is increasingly keen to work with Turkey on issues like the Mideast peace process, Iran's nuclear ambitions and Bosnia, where Ankara wields influence.

One proposed option is to give Turkey a seat at EU discussions on such issues, but there are fears that could be seen as a de facto EU membership for Ankara without it having to meet tough guidelines to join.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton played down such concerns after the meeting.

"It is not a way of putting Turkey in the room as the 28th member without them going through the process," she said. "It is about, in the areas where we work together, how do we more effectively ensure that we are in dialogue and that is something we are looking at very carefully."

Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb underscored Turkey's growing influence by calling it "one of the top five countries in the world today" in terms of foreign policy.

"Arguably, today Turkey is more influential in the world than any of our member states together or separately," Stubb said. "It has a great influence in the Middle East, in the African Horn in the Persian Gulf, in Iran. It's a truly global player and we need to work together with Turkey right now on foreign and security policy."

Saturday's talks, preceded by a working breakfast with nations bidding to join the EU, were informal and did not produce any solid policy decisions.

Ashton, who held talks with Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu Friday night, called the discussions a chance to "chew over" the relationship between the EU and Turkey.

As membership talks have dragged on, Turkey's enthusiasm for EU membership has eroded under internal tension, European skepticism and a dispute over divided Cyprus, an EU member. Key European leaders, in turn, fear an influx of migrants, worry about human rights and wonder about admitting a huge Muslim nation into a bloc that has struggled to integrate its own Muslim minorities.

Saturday's talks came a day before Turks vote in a referendum on changes to the constitution that was crafted in the wake of Turkey's 1980 military coup, which was marked by torture and other abuses.

The vote is on a package of 26 reforms that the government says will strengthen democracy and bring the 1982 constitution more in line with European norms — a key plank in the nation's EU bid.

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Associated Press Writer Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.