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EU: Iraq, Hamas Top Agenda Of Informal EU Foreign Ministers' Meeting

  • Ahto Lobjakas

EU foreign ministers began a two-day informal meeting on 5 September in the Italian spa town of Riva del Garda. The meeting is also being attended by ministers from the 10 candidate countries expecting to join the bloc next year. The future EU constitution had been expected to dominate the discussions. But the meeting was overshadowed by the mounting controversy over Iraq. Iran, the Mideast peace process, and the possible outlawing of Hamas complete the agenda.

Riva Del Garda, Italy; 7 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq once again took center stage in EU matters on 5 September when the bloc's foreign ministers began their traditional biannual informal gathering at Lake Garda in northern Italy.

The previous day, Germany and France rejected a U.S.-sponsored draft resolution on Iraq, saying it did not go far enough in granting the United Nations broader powers. The two countries had earlier indicated a central UN role is vital if they are to contribute much-needed troops and funds for Iraq.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw of Britain, the main U.S. ally in Europe, said 4 September that he hopes the EU will still find a way to support the U.S. resolution.

"Well, there were constructive discussions which took place among the permanent five members of the [UN] Security Council yesterday," he said. "There are consultations today with all 15 members [of the EU] and discussions about the detail of the resolution will continue. I'm optimistic. Some partners are saying 'Well, it doesn't go far enough,' but everyone recognizes it's a significant move in the right direction for the further strengthening of the role of the United Nations and, above all, providing a faster timescale to hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people."

EU diplomats and representatives of smaller member states, however, played down the importance of the discussions. One member state representative said Iraq was "high politics" and a matter for the Security Council.

An EU official said even critics of the United States welcome the fact that the U.S.-sponsored resolution gives a "clearer timeframe" for transferring political authority to Iraqis themselves.

Nevertheless, no agreement was in evidence on the question of how the United Nations and the United States should approach the sensitive issue of sharing military and political responsibility in Iraq before a transfer of power to an Iraqi government becomes possible.

There was a greater sense of unity over the Middle East. An EU official said on the afternoon of 5 September that the bloc's security policy chief, Javier Solana, who returned from a tour of the region this week, told EU ministers that the situation is "extremely grave." The official said last month's suicide bombing in Jerusalem -- in which nearly 20 people died, and for which Hamas has taken responsibility -- has put the peace process back to "square minus one."

Solana's report strengthens the hand of those within the EU arguing for the "blacklisting" of the political wing of Hamas. The EU has already put the military wing of the group on its list of terrorist organizations.

British Foreign Secretary Straw said on 4 September that London "strongly wants" the EU to outlaw the whole of Hamas.

"We gave Hamas a chance," Straw said. "We were about to outlaw them in June, early July. We agreed that since they had announced a cease-fire, we'd give them a chance. It's perfectly plain that they have failed to take that chance. In my judgment, therefore, the European Union does need to outlaw them, and I think that is the very broad consensus. I hope it turns into a unanimous decision."

EU officials speaking privately were in unison in repeating that "all 25" current and future EU member states are "absolutely" agreed that the EU must do all it can to thwart terrorism and deny it funding.

So far, some member states, notably France and Belgium, have argued that the political wing of Hamas is made up of a cluster of groups, some of which fulfill a "charitable" function, providing services like health care and education for Palestinian communities. A decision to outlaw it wholesale would therefore hurt the interests of these communities.

However, a consensus seems to be emerging that "properly targeted" sanctions are unavoidable if the EU is to act against groups and individuals who fund terrorism.

One official said the EU could follow the U.S. example and blacklist specific individuals and groups within Hamas.

Another said that although no EU money is going to Hamas, the bloc will have to look at the possibility that there are "individuals within the EU attached to groups supporting terror." The official said that if the EU takes a formal decision to blacklist the whole of Hamas, the financial assets of such individuals and groups will be frozen.

The issue of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programs was discussed on 6 September.

An EU official said the bloc is in general agreement that Iran must come up with "clear answers and decisions" in Vienna, where the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will begin a four-day meeting 8 September. The official said "stakes are high," adding that Iran "knows exactly what is expected." Specifically, the EU wants Iran to address the questions raised by Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the IAEA, relating to enriched weapons-grade uranium found by UN inspectors in Iran last month.

The official said the EU welcomes Iran's decision to start negotiations on signing an IAEA protocol providing for a stringent nuclear inspections regime. But, the official said, the talks must be concluded quickly, and Iran "must be more transparent" if it wants the international community to believe that there are no ongoing illegal weapons programs.

The United States is reported to be putting pressure on the IAEA to declare Iran in violation of UN rules and refer the matter to the Security Council.

EU ministers also raised the issue of Iran's cooperation in the context of the Mideast peace process. Officials say Iran will come under pressure to close the Tehran offices of both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Human rights concerns were also voiced, and the EU will send an inspection mission to Tehran on 15 September to scrutinize their state.