Brussels, 23 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Middle Eastern peace process will one of the dominant topics at the EU foreign ministers’ meeting today.
Member states in recent weeks have pursued separate initiatives in the region. But EU officials say today's meeting will attempt to bring a degree of unity to the bloc's policy on the Middle East.
One official said the EU understands the Afghan government's wish to legitimize its status with elections, but said the EU regards the "credibility" of elections as being more important than "having early elections."
Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, told RFE/RL on 20 February that much of the discussion will focus on Israel's proposal to withdraw most of its settlers from the Gaza Strip. "I'm sure that there will be a wide-ranging discussion on the Middle East in the [council]; one of the more recent developments that may come up for discussion is the Israeli plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza," she said. "That is to be welcomed, but we would underline our feeling that any such unilateral move must take place as part of a wider package, that is to say, in the context of the road map."
This, Udwin said, means that "durable progress" can only be achieved through negotiations between both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
EU diplomats privately acknowledge, however, that a dramatic increase in EU involvement in the region will not be possible as long as the United States refrains from greater engagement. One diplomat noted there is widespread recognition within the bloc that the upcoming U.S. presidential elections make such a development unlikely.
One EU official said the ministers are not expected to give much attention to the International Court of Justice hearing on the legality of Israel's security fence. The hearing begins today. The official said that although the EU has made it clear it believes the barrier contravenes international law -- at least on its current route -- the bloc has not made a submission to the court. Instead, the official said, the EU considers the referral of the matter to the court "not appropriate" because it does not contribute to the aim of bringing the two parties to the negotiating table.
There will also be substantial discussion on Iran. However, officials said late last week it is "not fully clear what will be on the table," given the 20 February parliamentary elections and the expected release this week of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on the assessment of Iran's nuclear program.
Officials say that on elections, the ministers' mood will be "one of concern." A spokesperson for EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana was quoted by Reuters as saying the process leading up to the Iranian poll was neither free nor fair due to the decision by unelected conservative authorities to disqualify more than 2,400 pro-reformist and moderate candidates.
Udwin said Iran's commitment to democracy remains a key factor for the EU in future cooperation. "We have been very concerned by some of the events that have taken place in the run-up to these elections and are, of course, following closely a process in which something like two-thirds of the candidates have not been able to stand," the spokeswoman said. "Democracy is one of the central values of the European Union and therefore it is important to us when we see an election taking place in these circumstances in a country with which we're hoping to build a much closer relationship."
EU officials expressed their disappointment over the failure of reformist forces to engender greater progress in Iran. One official denied that the apparent success of conservative candidates at the elections represents a failure for the EU's constructive engagement approach, saying the bloc has contacts with other political forces in Iran. The official said the EU will continue to support those groups wanting to "modernize and open up Iran."
EU foreign ministers will also hear a report on a visit to South Asia last week by Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and the EU's commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten.
Officials say discussions with India and Pakistan mostly concentrated on economic issues. The EU plays no role in the "composite dialogue" launched last week between the countries. One official said that although nonproliferation issues came up in talks with both governments, they "in no way dominated the proceedings."
Emma Udwin said on 20 February that the EU's goals in the region are limited to providing an example of the benefits of economic integration. "We are aware that India and Pakistan's rapprochement has also had an effect on the region, and contributed in no small part to the very positive SARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] summit that was held in January and we're most excited about the proposal to launch a free-trade area for South Asia by 2006," she said. "Now we know because of our own experience that economic integration can bring about security -- that's what the European Union is. And we have said to governments of both India and Pakistan that we look forward to supporting that SAFTA [South Asian Free Trade Asia] process and supporting them financially."
The EU has said it will support the free-trade initiative with a 5 million-euro ($6.3 million) grant, with more to follow if the initiative is a success.
Afghanistan is not on today's agenda, although officials stress that concern is growing in the EU over preparations for the June elections. One official said the EU understands the Afghan government's wish to legitimize its status with elections, but said the EU regards the "credibility" of elections as being more important than "having early elections."
Finally, there will be a discussion of developments in Serbia.
Emma Udwin told RFE/RL the bloc is troubled by the fact that the country's emerging minority government might need the support of the allies of Slobodan Milosevic. "I think that ministers will probably want to review the situation in Serbia where we have now the formula of the new Serbian government," she said. "We are concerned about this formula, which does depend on the parliamentary support of the party that is -- formally, at least -- headed by [Slobodan] Milosevic. But we would judge this administration by its actions."
EU officials emphasized the centrality of what one called "political conditionality" to future cooperation with Serbia. This includes observance of the rule of law and the rights of minorities, but also -- most importantly -- the "absolute and non-negotiable" respect for Serbia's international commitments. This means, first and foremost, compliance with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal.
There will be a statement on Kosovo following the presentation of a report by Solana. The report outlines EU priorities for the province. Officials say it will confirm the bloc's emphasis on the "standards before status" approach. Kosovo's status is expected to come under review in mid-2005, but not without significant progress in implementing standards of democracy, the rule of law, and minority rights.
The planned EU takeover of NATO's SFOR force in Bosnia will also be broached. Diplomats say the takeover will not take place before early next year.