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EU/U.S.: Talks To Focus On Greater Middle East

  • Ahto Lobjakas

A high-level European Union delegation travels to Washington today for talks. The central topic of discussion is expected to be a controversial U.S. plan for the modernization of what it calls the Greater Middle East. EU officials in Brussels appeared skeptical last week, suggesting the plan may clash with a number of key EU projects and concerns.

Brussels, 1 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The United States will be keen to use today's visit by top European Union foreign policy officials to raise support for a broad plan for the modernization of the Greater Middle East.

Media reports say the U.S. plan foresees ambitious political, economic, and cultural reforms in the Arab and Islamic worlds -- from Morocco to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, and the EU's external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, will be among those traveling to Washington. EU officials, briefing reporters ahead of the trip, indicated that the bloc's full backing for the U.S. initiative is unlikely at this stage.

Depending on the U.S. response, the EU will then decide whether "we can do it together" or whether the bloc will proceed on its own.
Patten's spokesman, Diego de Ojeda, said in Brussels on 27 February that the EU is engaged in working out its own plan for the region. He said it is too early to know how the plan will develop, adding that it is likely to be given a clearer shape at a meeting of EU foreign ministers next month.

De Ojeda said the EU first intends to hold wide-ranging consultations with representatives of the Arab world.

Among other things, the extent of the EU initiative remains open. There are reports that the EU is uneasy about the U.S. suggestion to include Afghanistan and Pakistan in its Mideast plan.

De Ojeda says the EU delegation today will make three key points to U.S. officials.

"First, the Arab-Israel conflict is, of course, essential. Second, it's necessary to build on what's already been achieved, including the Barcelona process [developing EU ties with the Mediterranean countries]. You don't want to start all over from the beginning,” he said. “And third, and not least by any means, it is necessary to make sure that there is a feeling of local ownership, which means that we do not attempt to impose a solution from the outside. Rather, we support something which emerges from the countries themselves."

De Ojeda said that, depending on the U.S. response, the EU will then decide whether "we can do it together" or whether the bloc will proceed on its own. U.S. officials have indicated they are working toward announcing a joint U.S.-EU strategy for the region at a summit of the G-8 countries in June.

After a meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on 27 February, U.S. President George W. Bush strongly defended the U.S. initiative: "There is some skepticism as to whether or not the people in the Middle East can self-govern. I strongly reject that skepticism and might call it cynicism, if people hold that attitude, because I believe that freedom is inherently a part of every soul and that, if given the proper structure and proper institutions, people can self-govern."

There is widespread conviction within the EU that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian is a key to further progress in the region. De Ojeda emphasized that point by saying the EU delegation will be pushing for the resumption of meetings by the Quartet. The Quartet -- which comprises the United States, the EU, the United Nations, and Russia -- oversees the now dormant road map to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In recent weeks, however, a number of potentially conflicting plans have been put forward by individual EU member states. The most prominent example is a proposal by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to involve NATO in the EU's plans, which has reportedly caused consternation in France.

In parallel, the European Commission is working on action plans for greater cooperation as part of its Wider Europe initiative. The action plans are to be unveiled in June and are likely to take in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. EU sources say there is disagreement among the member states as to what degree the stalled peace process should feature as a political precondition to any such initiative.

The EU-U.S. talks will also cover issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan, weapons proliferation, the NATO handover of Bosnian peacekeeping to the EU early next year, as well as Russia and its neighbors.

De Ojeda said on 27 February that the EU will try to win greater U.S. engagement in the so-called "frozen conflicts" in Moldova and the South Caucasus.

"We clearly will bring to the Americans a presentation of not only the commission communication on Russia [adopted last month], but, as well, the subsequent council [of Ministers] conclusions [from 23 February], and prospects for the future," de Ojeda said. "It is one key aspect in our communication, and in the council conclusions, the determination to be able to work together in practice on the ground on the solution of 'frozen conflicts' with Russia, in parallel to establishing great partnerships and, in abstract, including [these issues] in conflict management under the [European Security and Defense Policy]."

Russia has said it opposes increased EU involvement in what it considers its "backyard." However, in recent months, both EU and U.S. contacts with Moldova and Georgia have acquired an increasingly high profile.