EU seeks to look beyond Turkey protests


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LUXEMBOURG (AP) - Turkey's hope of moving to the next stage of negotiations to join the European Union was kept alive Monday after Germany proposed a compromise that would bind the bloc to expanded talks, but only once it approved Ankara's latest reforms.

With the hedged proposal, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he wanted to make sure the impact of the protests that have rocked the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the past weeks would be taken into account without endangering the long-term strategy to draw Turkey closer.

A progress report on Turkey's ability to fit within the EU is expected mid-October.

Westerwelle's proposal is expected to be discussed by EU ministers on Tuesday and any EU decision on Turkey talks needs unanimity among the 27 member states.

"On the one hand we cannot pretend as if these talks here were happening without any context, as if the past days hadn't existed," Westerwelle said. "On the other hand we also have to see that our joint, general, strategic and long-term interests are upheld."

Germany, which has a sizeable Turkish population, had initially blocked the next step in membership talks last week.

In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel also sounded more conciliatory as she underlined Germany's commitment to continuing with the talks.

She called the development of a strong civil society in Turkey very important and added that "it should not be viewed as a threat, but perceived as an enrichment."

Ministers from countries including Sweden and Belgium agreed that longer term considerations beyond the current political strife should be central to discussions.

"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 for further Turkish discussions.

"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.

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

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said the German and Turkish foreign ministers held more talks over the day and that he was confident that the EU would come up with a "positive" solution.

"It is in the whole of the EU's interest that the best decision, one that would give an impetus to EU-Turkish relations, is taken," Arinc said.

"We believe that the EU must adopt an approach that takes into account the strategic dimension of EU-Turkey relations," he added.

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 initially 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 in Berlin and Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.

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Follow Raf Casert on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert


(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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