Scotland's Transport Minister Nicol Stephen has held "constructive" talks with the European Commission over the future of west coast ferry routes.
Ministers were defeated in a vote on the issue
It follows a defeat for the Scottish Executive when MSPs voted against plans to put the services out to tender.
Mr Stephen spoke with the commission on Thursday in a bid to by-pass European competition laws and allow them to remain within the state's control.
More talks are planned over the coming weeks to try and resolve the problem.
State-owned ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne currently operates most of the routes in question.
Mr Stephen had claimed the executive had no alternative but to obey the commission's legislation and put the CalMac routes out to tender.
However, the executive was defeated by a single vote on a motion asking Holyrood politicians to endorse the privatisation move on Wednesday.
The proposal would have allowed private operators a chance to take over CalMac's Clyde and Western Isles routes.
But the result means the transport minister must now try and persuade the European Transport Commissioner to exclude the services from the normal competition rules and leave them in CalMac's control - as voted for by MSPs in Holyrood.
Following the vote, Mr Stephen told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme that there has already been interest in the service from commercial operators.
But he stressed: "We've also made it clear that we wish CalMac to tender and it is important that we recognise that in preparing for the future we need to keep a motivated workforce and a high quality company."
He added: "The legal advice that the executive has received is quite clear. if we want to protect these services and continue to subsidise them in the future, then we must go to tender.
"We have to make sure that, if we are forced by Europe, that we have the very best prospect possible of CalMac winning that tender."
However, the Scottish National Party's transport spokesman Fergus Ewing called on First Minister Jack
McConnell to publish the legal advice which recommends the tendering process.
He said: "Unless they come clean with the legal advice and an explanation of costs, then we will be no further forward.
"If Jack McConnell follows the old Scottish Office approach of keeping vital information secret, as they did with the Holyrood project, then any further debate on this issue will simply be a political version of 'Groundhog Day'."
Bristow Muldoon, Labour MSP for Livingston, was among the number of politicians who abstained from the vote.
He said: "The people of the islands and those who work for CalMac have both got issues in terms of the stability of their employment and the stability of their local economies that are potentially put at risk by the tendering process.
"I am not convinced that there are significant benefits to either the taxpayer or to the communities affected.
"Those benefits would need to be quite significant to have the uncertainty that the tendering process would involve."