LUXEMBOURG The European Union rebuked Turkey on Tuesday for its crackdown on anti-government protesters by postponing a new round of membership talks for at least four months, but said its path to the EU remained open.
The EU's move, discussed in advance with Turkey, drew only a mild response from Ankara and avoided a feared crisis in EU-Turkey relations.
The EU had planned to open a new chapter, or policy area, in talks with Turkey on Wednesday, reviving Turkey's bid to join the bloc that has been virtually frozen for three years.
But Germany, backed by Austria and the Netherlands, blocked the plan, believing it would send the wrong signal so soon after police cracked down on protesters in Turkish cities.
EU governments on Tuesday backed a German-inspired proposal, agreeing to open the chapter on regional policy but delaying the formal launch of talks until after an October 9 report by the European Commission on reforms and human rights in Turkey.
EU governments will meet again after the report comes out to set a date for talks on the new chapter in the light of what the report says about Turkey's behavior.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said the EU agreement gave Turkey "a probationary period (for) how it handles basic rights for citizens, how it handles the right to demonstrate and the right to free speech."
"In my view this is absolutely necessary because we cannot have a double standard in the European Union. We have a community of European values and this assumes that citizens' basic rights will be respected," he said in Vienna.
Protests swept Turkish cities after police used teargas and water cannon to disperse a demonstration against redevelopment of an Istanbul square. Two weeks of clashes with police have left four people dead and about 7,500 injured.
Turkey and Germany became embroiled in a diplomatic row last week after Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was appalled by the Turkish crackdown.
Germany and France have always had concerns about allowing a largely Muslim country of 76 million people into the 27-nation EU, fearing that Turkey's cultural differences and its size will make it too difficult to integrate.
The delay in reviving Turkey's bid is helpful to Merkel as it pushes back the talks until after a German election in September. Merkel's conservatives oppose Turkish EU membership.
Other EU governments, including Sweden, argued that the EU must keep Turkey on the path to EU membership and should engage more closely with Ankara to foster civil rights.
"While we have been disturbed by the reaction to the recent peaceful protests in Turkey, I believe the EU accession process is the most effective tool we have in influencing the reform agenda in Turkey," Eamon Gilmore, foreign minister of Ireland, current holder of the EU presidency, said in a statement.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who spoke several times to his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu before Tuesday's EU decision to smooth over any ill-feeling, said the decision was "a good decision in a difficult situation".
Turkey had promised a "strong reaction" to any EU decision and Turkish press reports had said it could suspend negotiations with Brussels altogether if Wednesday's talks were called off, but it toned down its criticism on Tuesday.
"What is important is the confirmation of the opening of the chapter with an irrevocable decision," Davutoglu said in Ankara. "An obstacle in Turkey's relations with the EU has been overcome... Our target now is the opening of two new chapters.".
Turkey opened negotiations to join the EU in 2005, 18 years after applying. The talks have advanced at a snail's pace and it has provisionally closed just one of 35 chapters.
(Additional reporting by Ilona Wissenbach and Martin Santa in Brussels; Michael Shields in Vienna, Daren Butler in Ankara; Editing by Gareth Jones)