The agenda of today's monthly meeting of European Union foreign ministers will be topped by three issues: Kaliningrad, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and enlargement. The EU is deeply divided on all three, although a moderately consolidated common position is expected to emerge on the ICC, setting out terms for member states willing to conclude bilateral exclusion agreements with the United States.
Brussels, 30 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign ministers will kick off their first official meeting after a summer recess reviewing progress, or more likely, the lack thereof, made toward allowing enlargement talks to close in December.
According to an EU official who asked not to be named, the ministers will discuss a Danish presidency paper addressing a number of "tricky institutional issues" that need to be resolved before enlargement. The EU needs to work out transitional arrangements for how votes are taken in its Council of Ministers, how many votes the new members will get, and how many seats they will have in the European Parliament during the period between enlargement and when the provisions of the Nice treaty take effect.
The problem at this stage lies with the Nice treaty itself, which remains unratified by Ireland. The Irish government said last week a second referendum will take place on 19 October. Recent polls indicate that only 37 percent of Irish voters intend to vote to ratify the Nice treaty, with 25 percent opposed and 32 percent undecided.
The European Commission has publicly said enlargement could be in "deep trouble" should Ireland fail to endorse the treaty, but it insists there is no "Plan B" for that eventuality.
Another tricky enlargement topic has to do with the expected budgetary balances of the new members after enlargement. A leaked commission working document indicates some of the candidates could be worse off in their first year of membership -- expected to be 2004 --than the year before.
Awaiting the results of Germany's recent elections, the EU's member states have so far put off drawing up a common position on the financial "chapters." Today's meeting will provide the EU with the first opportunity to move ahead, although full details of the final offer to the candidates will not emerge before late October.
The foreign ministers' lunch -- traditionally the occasion to address the most delicate issues on the agenda -- will cover the situation in the Middle East, a review of sanctions against Zimbabwe, and most important, the International Criminal Court.
The EU official quoted above said on 27 September that after long internal debate, there is a "good chance" that the ministers will agree on a common stance on how to simultaneously retain the integrity of the court and meet the concerns expressed by the United States. However, the official indicated that as a result of considerable "differences of opinion" among the EU member states, the bloc will not assume a common position on whether bilateral exemption agreements with the United States are allowed under the ICC statutes. Rather, they're likely to agree to a set of conditions, or "minimum standards," for those EU members willing to sign agreements with the United States. The official declined to elaborate on what the conditions might be.
The EU ministers' third major concern today will be relations with Russia, or more precisely, how to proceed with negotiations over access to Kaliningrad now that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has said the commission's recent offer is "unsatisfactory."
Two weeks ago, the commission suggested Russian frequent travelers could be issued a "Kaliningrad pass," which commission officials say is not a visa, although it would essentially be equivalent to a multiple-entry visa. The pass would be valid when accompanied by an internal Russian passport until the end of 2004. Afterward, an internationally recognized travel document would be required.
Previously, EU officials said the bloc would not negotiate its legislation with third countries such as Russia. Commission sources have told RFE/RL that there is considerable unease within the commission and among smaller member states that the offer goes beyond restrictions set by the EU's Schengen visa regime.
France, Italy, and Spain, on the other hand, have in recent weeks advocated even greater flexibility in meeting Russia's demands. They would also like the EU to commit itself to a speedy assessment of how high-speed train links could be set up between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia, allowing nonstop, visa-free travel for Russian citizens via Lithuania.
The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, said two weeks ago that its offer had been approved by candidate countries, including Lithuania.
In parallel, EU foreign ministers will today hold a first "orientation debate" on relations with the enlarged EU's "new neighbors," ranging from the former Yugoslavia to Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus. Among other measures, the commission has unofficially suggested a certain easing of the visa restrictions for commercial "small border traffic."
Commission sources say the main issue in the orientation debate will be whether the scheme should include the EU's eastern neighbors, as well as countries like Croatia and Yugoslavia, or whether what the EU calls the "potential members" in the Balkan region should be considered separately. Another unresolved issue is the status of the EU's future relations with the Caucasus.
The anonymous EU official quoted above said Iraq is not officially on the agenda of today's meeting but that the issue could be raised over lunch.