LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - The European Union rebuked Turkey on Tuesday for its crackdown on anti-government protesters, postponing a new round of membership talks for at least four months, but said the path to the EU remained open.
The EU move, discussed in advance with Turkey, drew a mild response from Ankara and avoided a crisis in their relations.
The EU had planned to open a new chapter in talks with Turkey on Wednesday, reviving its bid to join the bloc, which has been virtually frozen for three years.
But Germany, backed by Austria and the Netherlands, blocked the plan, saying 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 in light of what it says about Turkey's behaviour.
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.
The head of the Council of Europe, a 47-nation body that promotes human rights and is separate from the EU, said after meeting Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday that his government had shown "obvious examples" of mishandling the protests, especially through the use of excessive police force.
"I said to the prime minister that there is a judgment (of the European Court of Human Rights) saying that it is not acceptable to shoot tear gas into a closed room which happened here in a hotel reception," Secretary General Thorbjoern Jagland told Reuters in Ankara.
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 it 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.