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The European Union today held an unscheduled meeting of foreign ministers aimed at agreeing on a common EU stance ahead of this week's trade liberalization talks in Geneva. The ministers will also address the deepening humanitarian crisis in Sudan, as well as recent events in the Middle East.
Brussels, 26 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers headed to Brussels today looking to agree on a joint negotiating position on the so-called "Doha round" of global trade liberalization talks to be conducted this week (27-30 July) at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The European Commission gave a cautious welcome last week to a plan to revive the stalled free-trade talks. That plan will be presented tomorrow to ministers from WTO countries who will convene in Geneva.
The WTO meeting is seen as crucial. A new European Commission will take office on 1 November, shortly after presidential elections in the United States. If an agreement on global trade is not reached quickly, observers say the talks could stall for years.
The new plan, prepared by WTO negotiators, lays down general principles for more detailed talks to follow in agricultural trade, provision of services, and customs practices.
The blueprint has come under fierce criticism from France. The French farming sector is the most generously subsidized in Europe, and Paris has long fought EU concessions. However, France cannot veto EU decisions alone.
In May, the EU offered to drop all farm export subsidies, provided the United States and other main exporters do the same. The EU, which mostly uses direct subsidies, wants other forms of support to go too. Specifically, Brussels has criticized the U.S. practice of providing food aid. Washington does not consider food aid an export subsidy.
Developing countries, and other exporters such as Australia, have criticized the new blueprint as insufficient. They want clear and deep cuts in all export subsidies to ensure that trade conditions are generally considered more fair.
The ministers will also adopt a statement on the crisis in Darfur. A draft seen by RFE/RL says the EU is alarmed by reports of massive human rights violations by the so-called janjaweed militia. The EU says these include "systematic rape" of women.
Most members of the militia claim Arab descent. Their victims are predominantly black Africans.
The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week said Darfur is presently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. It has displaced a million people, and affects more than 2 million.
Efforts at mediating in the crisis have not yet had significant results. Recent reports say Britain may be ready to send as many as 5,000 peacekeepers to the region.
In its draft statement, EU ministers say Sudan's government must ensure human rights violations stop immediately. It adds that the EU has started preparing a list of janjaweed leaders responsible for breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law. The bloc will press the Sudanese government to arrest these people.
Sudan's foreign minister, touring Europe since late last week, says Darfur's non-Arab rebel movements are to blame for the violence.
The EU draft statement also notes that humanitarian access to Darfur has improved in recent days.
EU sources say Germany demands that the UN Security Council impose sanctions on Sudan. France, on the other hand, appears cautious.
The United States presented a draft UN Security Council resolution on Sudan last week.
Foreign ministers will also turn their attention to events in the Middle East.
EU security- and foreign-policy chief Javier Solana will brief EU ministers on his visit last week to Jordan, Egypt, and Israel, as well as a conference of Iraq's neighbors he attended in Egypt.
No new statement is expected, although the EU faces a crisis in relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
During his visit, Solana warned that Palestinian chairman Yasser Arafat must hand control of security forces to his prime minister, currently Ahmed Qurei. Qurei threatened to resign following disturbances last week in Gaza. Solana indicated the EU may reconsider its current support of Arafat.
Meanwhile, Israel has sharply criticized EU member states for supporting unanimously a UN General Assembly resolution which demands the partial dismantling of a security fence Israel is in the process of constructing.
Israeli Foreign Minister Sylvan Shalom, after meeting Solana, said that Israel cannot "trust" the EU as a partner in Middle East peace process.
EU officials stress the UN resolution also urged the Palestinian Authority to fight terrorism.
EU sources say the bloc fears the Palestinian Authority is on the brink of collapse.