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European Union foreign ministers today began an informal two-day meeting at a castle near the Dutch city of Maastricht. The informal meeting, known as a "Gymnich" after the German city where the first meeting of its type was held, takes place twice a year and gives the ministers an opportunity for strategic brainstorming in a relaxed atmosphere. This Gymnich meeting will feature a first debate on a possible EU "rule-of-law" aid mission to Iraq, in addition to what are likely to be tough exchanges on Iran, the Middle East, and the EU-Burma relationship.
Brussels, 3 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- EU foreign ministers gathered today in Castle St. Gerlach just outside Maastricht to discuss the range of foreign policy issues facing the bloc after the summer.
For once, Iraq is the topic with possibly the most positive momentum on the ministers' agenda. An EU fact-finding mission, headed by Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot, who represents the bloc's current presidency, returned from a trip to Baghdad this week.
Speaking before the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament yesterday, Bot said he will ask his colleagues to consider a number of possible measures ranging from training police officers and border guards to helping Iraq reform its judiciary and public administration systems.
Bot said the EU may also help Iraq conduct parliamentary elections later this year, as well as send monitors. However, he stressed much will depend on the security situation in the country.
Bot said the Dutch presidency would draw up a detailed proposal in the wake of the Gymnich discussion.
An EU diplomat, who asked not to be named, told journalists in Brussels yesterday that the focus will be on what the EU can do collectively. This could lead to the launch of a so-called EU civilian crisis management under the auspices of the bloc's fledgling defense project. So far, the bloc has conducted such missions in the Balkans.
The "rule of law mission" deployed in Georgia in early July is so far the only EU venture farther afield.
However, the diplomat warned that discussions on 4-5 September represent a very early stage in EU decision making. Another EU source told RFE/RL yesterday that the ministers will also consider a written UN request to assist with the redeployment of its mission in Baghdad.
The UN left Iraq last year after a deadly bombing. The source says the EU is likely to offer financial support, but will send no extra personnel. The source said the United States has expressed support to the UN request.
An EU diplomat said yesterday that the EU ministers will note that the implementation of the Middle East road map to peace has almost completely stalled in recent months.
Although the so-called Quartet comprising the EU, the United States, the United Nations, and Russia has maintained contact at envoy level, no higher-level meetings have taken place since May.
The diplomat said EU ministers will analyze the internal situation in Israel, specifically developments regarding Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's proposals to withdraw from the Gaza sector. The diplomat said the EU will note the difficulties Sharon is having within his own party, as well as in the Knesset. The ministers will discuss what the EU can do to support the withdrawal plan.
The diplomat said the EU supports the plan as long as it unfolds within the context of the road map. The EU has also demanded the Palestinian side be fully involved. The ministers will also discuss the recent resumption of suicide attacks in Israel.
The discussion on Iran is likely to be short. According to one official, the EU is "in an open situation" -- that is, it will have to await the results of the board of governors' meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency on 13 September. The board will hear reports from Iran and IAEA head Mohammad el-Baradei.
EU sources say France, Germany, and Britain -- which spearhead EU diplomatic efforts regarding Iran -- will brief other countries on recent contacts with Iran. One diplomat said a recent assessment by Chris Patten, the EU's outgoing external relations commissioner -- that relations with Iran "are going backwards" -- is shared by most EU governments.
Another diplomat said that unless Iran can satisfactorily explain findings of enriched uranium and continued centrifuge-construction activity, a referral of the problem to the UN Security Council "is not impossible" some time in the future. This could mean sanctions for Tehran.
Officials say the EU is expected to put an end to a long-running internal dispute on whether to recognize Burma as a member of the Asian regional bloc ASEM. Britain and the Netherlands have taken a tough line, ruling out meetings with top-level Burmese officials. This has put in jeopardy the EU-ASEM summit planned for Hanoi in October.
One diplomat told RFE/RL that a possible compromise could see the EU acquiescing to a low-level Burmese presence at the summit.
EU officials noted "some progress" yesterday in this week's negotiations between Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government in the Nigerian capital Abuja. One official underlined promises of improved access to humanitarian aid and progress in disarming the Janjaweed militia. However, the official said little has been done by Sudan to ensure the safety of the civilian population.
Dutch Foreign Minister Bot told the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that a recent report presented by a Dutch diplomat to the UN Security Council shows the situation is "somewhere between the glass being half-empty and half-full."
Diplomats say the EU is paying most of the costs of the African Union monitoring operation in Darfur. The EU itself has eight monitors present, which is the maximum allowed under the terms of an agreement with Sudan. One official said the UN is likely to approve an expansion of the international presence in Darfur, adding the EU would support the initiative.
The bloc is also considering sending 25-30 "police monitors" to Darfur to oversee the planned deployment of thousands of Sudanese policemen.
At a Slovak request, the foreign ministers will briefly discuss the situation in both Ukraine and Moldova.
The EU has expressed serious reservations regarding the forthcoming presidential elections in Ukraine in October. Foreign Minister Bot said yesterday that there is evidence civil servants are under pressure to support the candidacy of Viktor Yanukovich, a favorite of incumbent President Leonid Kuchma.
As regards Moldova, the decision by Transdniestrian authorities to close Romanian-language schools has caused consternation in the EU.
A letter sent from the Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan to his EU colleagues, and seen by RFE/RL, says the elections in Ukraine have great significance for the EU.
Developments in the Moldovan-Transdniestrian relationship are also said to play an important role in the context of the EU-Russia relationship, and may have a potentially destabilizing effect on the entire region.