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EU: Relations With 'Wider Middle East' Tops Ministers' Monthly Agenda

  • Ahto Lobjakas

EU foreign ministers hold their monthly meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow. The external relations part of the meeting will largely deal with the Middle East peace process and EU relations with Libya and Syria. Iraq is also likely to be discussed, although it is not formally on the agenda. The ministers will also revive talks on a new EU constitution, broken off last December. They will also hold a joint sitting with EU defense ministers, who gather in Brussels for a parallel meeting.

Brussels, 17 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Prospects for the "Wider Middle East," the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and deadlocks in the otherwise promising nascent relationships with Syria and Libya will dominate the EU foreign ministers' talks today.

EU foreign ministers are expected to issue a statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and EU-Arab relations. EU officials say the bloc is keen to emphasize continuing agreement with the United States that the "road map" to peace remains intact. Last month, U.S. President George W. Bush appeared to contradict some of the basic tenets of the road map when he endorsed unilateral Israeli plans for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Early this month, however, a meeting of the diplomatic "Quartet" sponsoring the road map -- the EU, the United States, the United Nations, and Russia -- reaffirmed a joint commitment to a negotiated settlement fully involving the Palestinian side.

The EU ministers will also call on other international donors to contribute to a new World Bank trust fund to be set up to help finance the Palestinian Authority. Officials say the ministers will also adopt a statement encouraging Arab countries to outline their vision for the future of the Wider Middle East. The next Arab League summit, originally scheduled for last month, is seen as a key venue for such a statement. EU foreign ministers will also meet their counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council in Brussels tonight.

Officials say any plans for the region at large must be "owned" by the governments there. They must also build on existing structures of cooperation with the EU and recognize work already being done by the bloc. The main EU instrument for cooperation with the Mediterranean countries is the "Barcelona process," which disburses 3 billion euros ($3.6 billion) annually, of which 1 billion is in grants.

Officials say the U.S. administration has recently displayed increasing readiness to take on board EU concerns. The EU, however, has no clear indication of the funding the United States may be willing to commit to the region.

Meanwhile, Syria is the last of the EU partner countries within the Barcelona process without an association agreement -- the bloc's preferred means of cooperation for the region stretching from Morocco to Lebanon. Although a draft agreement was initialed last December, a row over the precise wording of a clause committing Syria to the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction blocks final accord.

EU member states agreed last autumn that all agreements with non-EU countries must contain a mandatory nonproliferation clause. The clause negotiated with Syria departs from last autumn's "model text." Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands argue this is unacceptable, while officials at the European Commission, which negotiated the draft deal, say the current wording is "very satisfactory" and that any doubts to the contrary are "ridiculous." Syria, meanwhile, has rejected the "model text."

One commission official said last weekend that the three member states must now decide whether they prefer "format over substance." The official said that if the EU remains rigid, the whole deal will fall flat. This in turn could put at risk future political and economic cooperation with Syria, which would include dialogue on nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and human rights.

Libya is on the agenda at a long-standing German request. EU officials say Germany wants greater EU backing for its demand for compensation for a 1986 discotheque bombing in Berlin. Three people died and more than 200 were injured, many of them U.S. servicemen. The United States blamed Libya for the bombing. Libya has made a compensation offer, but it was deemed insufficient.

The issue blocks Libya's accession to the Barcelona process -- something the country's ruler Muammar Ghaddafi said he now seeks. As a sign of improving relations, he recently toured Brussels.

Another challenge is the death sentence passed by a Libyan court this month on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor. All six are accused of knowingly infecting hundreds of Libyan children with AIDS. A European Commission source said last week that independent experts have concluded the infections were not deliberate and that the Bulgarian staff unknowingly worked in contaminated conditions. He also said the trial had not met minimal standards of fairness. The spokesman noted that as Bulgaria is a future EU member state, the 25 current member states have "made it very clear that unless a satisfactory solution is found to this case, there won't be a full normalization of relations with Libya."

The source said a commuted death sentence would not be acceptable to the EU. However, he said, the EU understands that the Libyan regime must be able to "save face." This, the source said, would be possible if Libya immediately expelled the medics.

There will also be a general discussion of the situation in western Sudan. EU ministers will weigh the prospects for an independent monitoring mechanism, without which the bloc believes the current cease-fire will not hold. EU officials say the monitoring process should be led by the African Union, with the EU, United States, and other countries possibly providing personnel.

The ministers will also discuss further aid to Sudan, but an official said last week that further EU contributions can only take place at the specific request of the African Union. The EU has already released 16.5 million euros ($19.8 million) in humanitarian aid to Darfur. Officials said on 14 May that a further 15.3 million is in the pipeline.

Also, the Danish government has asked the EU ministers to hold a debate on the International Criminal Court today. The request makes reference to the fact that the UN Security Council is soon to debate the exemptions regime put in place two years ago, largely at the insistence of the United States.

The EU has also sharply criticized Washington’s drive for bilateral immunity treaties for U.S. personnel.
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