EU seeks to look beyond the Turkey protests and at long-term prospect for membership

Turkey's hope of moving to the next stage of its negotiations to join the European Union was kept alive Monday after Germany and others sounded a conciliatory note over the prospect despite the protests that have rocked the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Though Germany, which has a sizeable Turkish population, blocked the next step in membership talks last week, the country's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said discussions should continue.

"We should not let the dialogue be interrupted or weakened," he said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers. "It is also important that we also are aware of the strategic and long-term developments."

During the meeting of the 27 EU foreign ministers, Germany was looking for a compromise on certain technical issues that will keep the talks on track. The original plans had been to approve the new step in the negotiations at a meeting on Wednesday.

Ministers from countries including Sweden and Belgium agreed that longer term considerations beyond the current political strife should be taken during the talks.

"We are not pursuing policies for the day and for the week, we are pursuing policies for the years and the decades," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. "We can't change the strategy of the European Union, just because there happens to be nervousness in one part or in the other."

EU Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton was also seeking to keep the door open.

"My general view on everything is engagement is a much better option where you possibly can," she said.

Berlin's blocking of the decision to open a new chapter in the long-running accession negotiations last week was a blow to Erdogan's government, which already faces increasing international scrutiny over its crackdown.

"We have to notice at the moment that there has to be some movement from Turkey before starting with negotiations in a new chapter," said Austria's Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger.

Any decision on opening a new policy area in negotiations with Turkey needs the unanimous backing of all EU countries. Ireland, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, was seeking to get all member states to follow one line.

"We are waiting for signals from Ankara that they are going to give people in Turkey really their rights," said Spindelegger.

Turkey began EU accession negotiations in 2005, but has made little progress because of its dispute with Cyprus, an EU member, and opposition among some in Europe to admitting a populous Muslim nation into the bloc.

The session of EU talks to open next week was to focus on regional policies, one of 35 chapters for aspiring members to address. But some officials expressed concern that such talks could appear to endorse the crackdown on the demonstrations.

Despite the concerns, Belgium too insisted on pressing ahead. "We should never close the door," said Foreign Minister Didier Reynders.

Asked what Turkey will do if the EU does not open a new chapter in the membership talks this week, Turkey's minister in charge of EU affairs Egemen Bagis said the country was also busy working on the issue.

He was quoted as telling Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily: "We are working on an answer. I can't tell you more, only so much: Turkey has other options."

"We need the EU and the EU needs us," he said. "It is not fair to block the opening of the new chapter in negotiations, which is mainly technical, because of technical constraints."

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Associated Press writer Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin

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