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EU: Iraq Issue To Dominate Foreign Ministers' Meeting

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Union foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels today for their regular monthly meeting. Iraq will top the agenda, though major developments are unlikely just a few days after EU leaders hammered out a common position at an emergency summit on 17 February. The ministers will also discuss a wide range of regional issues, spanning from Croatia's membership application last week to relations with Russia and other "new neighbors" after enlargement.

Brussels, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Although observers predict new cracks in the hard-fought compromise agreed by European Union leaders on Iraq last week, the bloc's foreign ministers are likely to contain their differences during their monthly meeting today in Brussels.

The ministers' debate on Iraq will take place over lunch in the presence of the Arab League Chairman and Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmud Hammud and the league's secretary-general Amr Mussa. This fact by itself, EU officials note, renders an internal debate unlikely. It seems inevitable, however, that much of the informal talks between the foreign ministers will deal with the wording of the new United Nations resolution on Iraq promised over the weekend by President George W Bush.

EU officials say the Arab League leaders have been invited to attend today's meeting as part of the EU's wider diplomatic effort to engage the Arab world in seeking to disarm Iraq peacefully. The need to work with Arab states "separately and jointly" was recognized in the 17 February summit compromise. Various EU envoys were present at an Arab League foreign ministers' meeting eight days ago.

In parallel with Iraq, EU foreign ministers will brief the Arab League representatives on their views on the Middle East. EU officials have repeatedly suggested that many member states take the view that the two issues are inextricably linked.

Officials said on 21 February that the EU is likely to reiterate its call for the speedy implementation of the "road map" peace plan approved by the EU, United States, the United Nations, and Russia before Christmas. EU officials say the adoption of the road map is essential to "keep alive the political perspective" of Palestinian statehood in the foreseeable future.

The EU side also brushes off suggestions that it may cut budgetary aid to the Palestinian Authority. Last week, the EU's own antifraud office (OLAF) launched an investigation into allegations that some of the aid funds were passed on to terrorist groups. However, an EU diplomat said on 21 February that there was "great consensus" within the bloc that EU budgetary assistance has been "crucial" in Palestine and said no cutoff date is likely to be agreed upon anytime soon.

A significant part of the meeting today will be devoted to the western Balkans.

The EU's Greek presidency and representatives of the European Commission will hold "political dialogue" meetings with Croatia and Macedonia before the start of the foreign ministers' meeting proper, but officials say both topics will also be raised by the full college of ministers later.

Officials say the EU will welcome Croatia's application to join the bloc, lodged with the EU's Greek presidency on 21 February. One said it has been an "important development in EU-Croatia relations that Croatia has felt confident enough of its progress" to apply for membership. The official stressed the EU remains open to all other western Balkan countries but said all would be treated according to their own individual merits.

Following Croatia's application, the EU foreign minister must agree to ask the European Commission for an opinion on whether the country is suitable for candidate status. The EU official quoted above said this could "take time," as only five EU member states have to date ratified Croatia's Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. The ratification procedure is held up by what most member states view as Croatia's insufficient cooperation with the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague (ICTY). The official said the ratification of the pact is not a formal precondition for giving Croatia candidate status but noted that the EU must make the latter decision unanimously and that therefore compliance with ICTY would remain a decisive factor.

EU sources say the EU foreign ministers' discussion with Macedonia will hold "no surprises." The EU will welcome the "positive attitude" of the new government to relations with the EU but will make the point that, as one diplomat put it, "it's not just about agreeing [upon] documents, it's about implementation." In Macedonia's case, the EU seeks compelling evidence of decentralization of power and equitable representation of minorities in national structures.

Serbia and Montenegro will also be taken to task by the foreign ministers today. The EU will reiterate its demand that the country cooperate fully with ICTY. An EU official on 21 February denied rumors that the EU is considering a proposal to cut Serbia's 2003 aid money distributed via the so-called CARDS program. However, the official pointedly said the EU is currently debating this year's funds, adding that compliance with the ICTY is "not an option but an obligation" for Serbia.

EU foreign ministers today will also discuss the launching of the bloc's first independent military operation in Macedonia on 15 March, when the EU is expected to assume command over a force of 350 troops from NATO. They are also likely to broach the subject of a similar takeover of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.

Another major issue on today's agenda is talks with the current chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Netherlands, first in limited "troika" format involving the EU's Greek presidency, its chief foreign-policy coordinator Javier Solana, and officials of the European Commission, and later within the full session of the foreign ministers' meeting.

The talks with the OSCE will center on the peace process in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester province and the situation in Chechnya. One EU official last week predicted that Chechnya would be the key issue, given that a recent European Commission humanitarian mission to the region found "continuing cause for concern of human rights abuses." The official described the human rights situation in Chechnya as "appalling."

EU concerns are compounded by Russia's refusal to extend the mandate of an OSCE mission in Chechnya, which expired at the end of last year. The Netherlands is expected to request, and receive, EU support in pressuring Moscow on the issue.

The ministers will also discuss Russia's own request for international observers for the constitutional referendum in Chechnya scheduled for 23 March. The EU source said the bloc has "doubts about how free and fair polling can be" and that consultations among member states were still going on about whether the EU should send observers.

The official also said Chechnya would "have a bearing" on today's exchange of views on renewing the bloc's strategic partnership with Russia.

The ministers' minds, however, are likely to be largely occupied with more immediate concerns, such as Romano Prodi's lightning trip to Moscow on 18 February. Although officially billed as an opportunity to brief President Vladimir Putin on the outcome of the EU's emergency summit on Iraq and discuss once again the implications of enlargement for Russia, there have been suggestions that another concern was to secure Russia's assistance if oil and gas supplies become disrupted as a result of war.

EU foreign ministers will also hold another debate on the "new neighbors" that appear on its borders as a result of the enlargement. Last autumn, a foreign ministers' meeting requested the commission and Solana to prepare strategy documents for the Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus. This mandate was extended in December at the Copenhagen summit to the countries south of the Mediterranean Sea. One EU official described today's debate as "premature," given that the commission will only be able to produce its report in mid-March.