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EU: Foreign Ministers' Meeting To Focus On Enlargement, Mideast, Balkans

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Union foreign ministers were to convene today in Brussels to discuss topics including external development aid, enlargement, the Balkans, and the situation in the Middle East. No major decisions are expected on either enlargement or the Middle East, but the ministers should formally announce their decision to take over from NATO the running of the international police force in Bosnia.

Brussels, 18 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The EU foreign ministers are expected to begin their discussions with the topic of enlargement, although well-informed EU sources say the debate should not go beyond what has already been said in the last two weeks.

Much of the candidate countries' interest will instead probably focus on the gathering of EU agriculture ministers, also due to take place in Brussels today. The meeting will give the bloc's farm ministers an opportunity to present their first formal reactions to the funding proposals on enlargement presented by the European Commission in January.

The foreign ministers' meeting will proceed with what officials say will be a "fairly long" debate on external development aid provided by the EU. The ministers will hold a yearly "orientation debate" looking at improvements in aid deliveries, and discussing priorities and ways of financing multiplying commitments.

Briefing journalists ahead of today's meeting, EU officials on 15 February said the debates are likely to be dominated by the need to find additional funds for recent crises. The bloc is already experiencing trouble finding money for long-standing commitments in the Balkans. The escalating troubles in the Middle East and the support promised for Afghanistan have created pressures that are "difficult if not impossible to accommodate within present budget constraints," said one official. The official added that the European Commission has asked the member states to authorize the creation of a new budgetary "flexibility instrument" which -- respecting previously agreed budget ceilings -- would be financed from surpluses in other budget lines, like agriculture.

The European Commission will also tell the EU's member governments today that the bloc must improve the coherence of EU and national-level aid policies. The Commission will recommend a shift away from the regional "common strategies" in favor of detailed and concrete long-term strategies for separate countries. The first such strategies are already available on the Commission website (www.europa.eu.int/comm).

The EU foreign ministers will also look at aid management reforms initiated two years ago with a view to reducing the huge backlog of commitments developed in the 1990s. A Commission official said the EU has recently been acting with "unprecedented speed" in the Balkans and Afghanistan, adding that for the first time in more than 10 years, the backlog of commitments has begun to decrease. Nevertheless, more than 20 billion euros' ($17.5 billion) worth of commitments remain undisbursed.

Regarding the situation in the Middle East, EU officials say no concrete initiatives are expected, as "different readings" of the situation abound among member countries. It is therefore unlikely, officials say, that the EU's Spanish presidency will be able to present a policy paper regrouping the different approaches today.

An EU official said it would take "a little more time" before the EU policy in the Middle East can coherently proceed beyond statements to "operational steps." Key elements in strategies are still open, the official said, adding that while France favors quick elections in the Palestinian territories, Germany has said it would prefer a referendum to avoid radicalizing the Palestinian extremists. The official said Britain has been concerned about ensuring that the views of the United States are taken into account.

After lunch, the EU ministers were expected to meet Afghan interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The discussions will touch on extending the mandate of the international security force in the country and the possibility of increasing the number of its troops. The EU side will also discussing certain security concerns, indicating that aid personnel could be withdrawn from some areas if their safety is not guaranteed.

The EU ministers are also discussing preparations for the March conference on sustainable development in Monterrey, Mexico. Officials say EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten will put pressure on developed countries to increase the 0.7 percent of gross domestic product spending now committed to overseas development assistance. Patten's criticisms are likely to focus largely on the United States, whose foreign policy objectives he has recently publicly questioned. EU officials said on 15 February that Patten feels more "convincing work" needs to be done to get the United States "on board" in recognizing that "development assistance is at least as important as military expenditure."

Finally, the EU foreign ministers are expected to announce today that the bloc will replace NATO in running the international task force in Bosnia. However, as of 15 February there was still no agreement among the member states on how to meet the estimated 40-45 million euro ($35-39 million) costs of the project. European Commission sources said some member states appeared reluctant to fund their personnel from national budgets as has been the case before in operations in the Balkans.

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