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EU: Foreign Ministers To Tackle Massive Agenda

  • Ahto Lobjakas

European Union foreign ministers, who begin a two-day meeting in Brussels today, face an unusually demanding agenda. The highlights of the gathering will be meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, and the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hassan Rohani. EU defense and development ministers will also attend parts of the foreign ministers' monthly session.

Brussels, 17 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The agenda of the two-day EU foreign ministers' meeting is not only a hefty one, it contains a number of highly charged issues.

Most of the 25 ministers gathering in Brussels -- representing the current member states and the 10 accession states -- are probably most looking forward to a rare exchange of views with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

An EU official -- who asked not to be named -- said the meeting, scheduled for tomorrow, is going to see an "unscripted exchange of ideas on trans-Atlantic cohesion," and will explore "the ways and means" of improving dialogue.

The talks are expected to cover most topical international issues -- the Middle East peace process, the situation in Iraq and in the Balkans, the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the fight against terror.

An EU diplomat said Powell has said he will use the meeting to raise the issue of Galileo -- the satellite positioning system currently being developed by the EU, set to rival the U.S. geo-positioning system (GPS). The diplomat said the EU is asking the United States to display "flexibility" and assist the EU in attaining its goal of closing all "outstanding issues" by end of year.

EU defense plans are another issue likely to crop up at the talks tomorrow, with Washington seeking assurances that the current constitutional debate on an independent EU defense force does not open the door to rivalry with NATO.

The subject of Iraq topped the agenda for the "working lunch" the 25 EU ministers held today. EU officials say the deteriorating security situation is the "central focus" of deliberations. The ministers stress the importance of handing over power to the Iraqis themselves, as soon as that becomes feasible. Also, they demand that the United Nations plays a vital role in setting up the country's institutions.

On Iran and the possibility it is developing a nuclear weapons program, the EU is likely to adopt a "wait-and-see" posture, preferring to await the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) next board meeting on 20 November.

An EU official said relations with Iran remain "under review," meaning the bloc will continue the ongoing political and trade dialogue with Tehran.

Meanwhile, officials cautiously welcome the recent finding by the IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei that no evidence has been found of any military projects in Iran involving nuclear material. However, ElBaradei also said there was evidence of "concealment" regarding certain materials. Iran's recent indication that it is willing to sign the additional IAEA protocol allowing for tough snap inspections is described as a "promise," which needs to be implemented for EU ties to continue.

EU ministers will also meet Hassan Rohani, head of Iran's Supreme Council of National Security.

Concerning the Middle East, the key event is the EU-Israel association council, which begins late today and resumes tomorrow morning. Normally a purely commercial event, the council will this time begin by considering a number of political issues.

EU officials are keen to stress the potential in EU-Israeli relations, reiterating that the bloc's ties with Israel are "wider and deeper" than with any other country in the region. Besides growing trade volumes, both sides are interested in advancing cooperation in fields like agriculture, energy, and science. Israel is also keen to participate in the Galileo project.

Nevertheless, the meeting is likely to be dominated by a number of more immediate political concerns, which EU officials describe as "extremely worrying." None more so, officials say, than the refusal of the Israeli government to receive any EU representative who has met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has repeatedly snubbed EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, but it now appears that the EU's new special envoy to the region, Belgian diplomat Marc Otte, is being boycotted by all levels of the Israeli government.

One official, speaking last week, described the situation as "unacceptable." Yet, the official appeared to confirm reports that the joint EU-Israeli declaration being drafted will only gently urge Israel to reconsider its position, noting the present situation is having a "negative impact" on future dialogue.

The EU side will also raise the issue of the Israeli "security fence." An EU official said the EU side will warn Israel that deviations from the current and planned route of the fence from the "green line" separating Israel and the Palestinian territories could "prejudge future negotiations." Worse still, the official said, the fence could make the widely supported two-state solution a "physical impossibility."

The EU will also repeat its "regular call" for a freeze on new settlement activity and the dismantling of Israeli settlements built since March 2001.

Officials say Afghanistan appears on the ministers' agenda at the specific request of Chris Patten. Patten will warn EU ministers that the bloc needs to "refocus" attention on the country, where the peace process is not irreversible. Patten is said to be particularly concerned about the increasing involvement of local warlords in the drug trade. Commission officials say poppy production in Afghanistan is reaching "new levels," and it is estimated up to 70 percent of the world's total opium yield derives from Afghanistan. Patten is said to believe that the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan is not enough unless the "other side of the coin" -- that is, the drug problem -- is tackled through improved law enforcement capabilities. The EU recently added 50 million euros ($59 million) to its annual contribution to Afghanistan to pay for the training and salaries of local police forces.

On the Balkans, EU officials highlight two expected developments. First, the ministers are likely to approve a declaration on Kosovo welcoming the intention of UN special representative Harri Holkeri to set out the detailed guidelines for his "standards before status" approach. Although at the moment the final status of Kosovo remains open, the ministers will indicate that given sufficient reforms, the status of the province could be reviewed in 2005.

The commission is expected to give the green light to commencing Stability and Association talks with Bosnia.

The ministers will also briefly discuss the EU-Russia summit in Rome on 6 November.

Officials say the European Commission will tell the meeting the summit "highlighted growing differences" between the EU and Russia on a number of key issues, among them Moscow's refusal to hurry with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, as well as Russia's unwillingness to extend the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the EU to the acceding countries without prior negotiations.

The EU foreign ministers will also hold their first discussion on a proposal to insert a clause on WMD proliferation in all agreements with third countries. An EU diplomat said on 14 November there is "political agreement" within the EU on the issue, although the details of how to achieve the goal will have to be worked out in coming months.