On Iran, the ministers will hear a report from the EU's foreign and security policy chief, Javier Solana, on his recent visit to the country. No developments are expected at this stage. Officials say relations with Iran will remain on hold until at least next month, when the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammed el-Baradei, will deliver an update on the country's nuclear program.
The EU's "twin-track" talks with Iran on trade cooperation and human rights, which began in December 2002, have been suspended since June last year. The suspension followed mounting international concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Although Iran has now signed a UN protocol allowing for strict, short-notice international inspections of its nuclear sites and has stopped its uranium enrichment project, a number of EU member states, led by Britain, feel the resumption of talks would at this stage be premature.
Despite pressure from the EU, Iran's attitude toward the Middle East peace process is described by diplomats as unchanged. Meanwhile, Tehran continues to support a number of groups that feature on the EU's "blacklist" of terrorist organizations.
Emma Udwin, a spokeswoman for the European Commission, told RFE/RL last week that the EU is also concerned about the decision of Iran's Guardians Council to bar a large number of reformist candidates from next month's legislative elections. "We are watching political developments in Iran with some concern," she said. "We hope that the situation can be resolved through Iran's internal political processes, and there have been some signs that this will be attempted. Democracy is an important value of the European Union, and it's important in all of our relationships with third countries. So, we will continue to watch the situation very carefully and hope that it can be resolved," Udwin said.
The Guardians Council initially excluded 3,600 prospective candidates from running. Last week, it reinstated more than 200, but the gesture is likely to be deemed insufficient by the EU. EU officials have repeatedly indicated that reasonably fair and free elections are viewed by member states as another precondition for renewing trade talks. No EU statement is expected on Iran today.
A statement is expected on Afghanistan, however. An Irish presidency source said last week that the statement will mostly focus on presidential elections scheduled for June, as well as welcome the adoption of a new constitution earlier this month.
Officials say, however, that ministers are likely to be preoccupied by how to deal with an Afghan request for a new international donors' conference before the elections.
A number of EU diplomats told RFE/RL late last week that the EU does not feel that funds would be available within the bloc or outside the bloc to justify a new pledging event.
Spokeswoman Udwin stressed on 23 January that the EU has already contributed vast sums to Afghanistan. "The European Union is very heavily committed in Afghanistan, has been from the  Bonn conference onwards, has been a major donor, spending 1 billion euros [$1.3 billion] out of the community budget over five years, and that money -- I'd like to say -- [has been] stepped up substantially by the contributions individual member states also make. Last year, 2003, out of the community budget we spent about 250 million [euros], but with the member states that went up to 800 million [euros]. We are very engaged and very committed to helping Afghans rebuild their country and build a better, democratic future," Udwin said.
However, Afghanistan's request for an international conference will not be fully rejected. An Irish official said last week that ministers will today discuss the "timing and nature" of the event. Germany has offered to host the conference in Bonn in March. The official said it is likely to be dedicated to a "wide-ranging debate" on Afghanistan's future, rather than to the pledging of new funds.
The EU appears at this stage to have mounting concerns about the security situation in the country, which complicates voter registration and could undermine free elections. Udwin underlined that many in the EU feel that the lack of security outside Kabul -- combined with increasing drugs production -- is putting Afghanistan's long-term future at risk. Afghanistan is currently estimated to be producing three-quarters of the world's opium.
The outgoing UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has said the NATO-led, 5,700-strong stabilization force in the country needs at least 5,000 more troops."It's true that we remain concerned about the situation on the ground," says Udwin. "The security situation is of concern to everyone, I think. That is why a number of member states are very substantially engaged in Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and that's why we have stepped up -- as the European Commission -- the contribution to the law-and-order trust fund, the policing issues. I think that we all hope that elections can take place in the course of this year as planned, but we all have to be aware that security is a problem and that security, drugs production -- these issues will continue to limit the pace at which Afghanistan can advance, unless they're tackled."
EU officials have long described the situation in Afghanistan as a "vicious circle," where drug funds go toward propping up regional warlords, who in turn fuel political instability with the aim of securing a continued income from drugs production.
The EU ministers are expected to adopt a short statement on China in response to pressure from Beijing to drop the arms embargo that was put in place following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
EU officials say member states are divided on the issue, with some like France and Germany claiming the measure has become "anomalous and anachronistic" in view of the bloc's rapidly improving ties with China. China's interest in the EU's planned high-tech satellite positioning system Galileo is often cited as a case in point.
France is thought to be particularly keen on the issue, as China's president today begins a high-profile visit to the country.
An Irish official said last week, however, that given the stiff resistance from some member states, it would be "surprising if the statement didn't mandate further work" on the issue instead of a quick renunciation of the embargo.
Udwin confirmed that human rights concerns remain the predominant objection. "What we've seen over the past year or so is clear pressure on the part of the Chinese. They would like to see the arms embargo lifted. In the course of the Greek presidency [in the first half of 2003], the feeling in the Council [of Ministers representing EU member states] was that there was still insufficient confidence in China's human rights record. We've seen recently, I think in December, a resolution passed in the [European] Parliament against the lifting of the arms embargo. But at the same time, there does seem to be some kind of a shift of mood going on in the council. We have heard from some member states that they are now interested in opening the question," Udwin said.
Apart from human rights worries, Britain also argues the EU should heed U.S. calls for not dropping the measure. The Irish official quoted above said the EU's current presidency expects the embargo to be abandoned in the not-too-distant future, however, hinting the next EU summit in March could take the decision.
Another EU diplomat also confirmed that "differences among the member states are narrowing." The official said China could improve matters by taking steps to allay concerns over its human rights record by ratifying the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it signed in 1998.
The official also stressed the importance the bloc attaches to improving relations with Beijing, noting that China has responded, making the EU the object of its first-ever strategy for dealing with another region of the world. Officials suggest the dropping of the embargo would in any case amount to a largely symbolic measure, as the EU operates a "code of conduct" that prevents most weapons exports to countries that violate internationally adopted standards of democracy and human rights.
Today's foreign ministers' meeting takes place the day after the inauguration of the new Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The ceremony in Tbilisi yesterday was attended by Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowan, who will today brief his EU colleagues on the talks he had with the country's new leadership.
EU officials said last week the ministers are expected to adopt a statement offering Georgia -- together with Armenia and Azerbaijan -- the prospect of closer ties with the bloc.
The draft statement, seen by RFE/RL, says the member states will instruct the European Commission and Javier Solana to prepare a "recommendation" detailing how the three South Caucasus countries could be included in the EU's "Wider Europe" program for relations with its new neighbors. The statement also says a final decision is expected before the end of the Irish presidency in late June. A commission official said much will depend on the conduct and results of Georgia's parliamentary elections later in the spring. The official said the EU expects to field a monitoring mission to observe the poll.
Another crucial factor is whether Georgia can quickly set up a sustainable reform program. The official said the EU is already assessing Georgia's needs for further funding, in addition to the 7 million euros contributed by the EU since November 2003. The official also said an international donors' conference for Georgia could be held later this spring.
MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS
The Middle East peace process is -- in the words of one EU official -- another "regular and serious" item on the ministers' agenda. Irish Foreign Minister Cowan will brief the meeting on his recent visit to the region. Although lively debate is expected, no statement is foreseen. Last week, Cowan told the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee that although the road map to peace, backed by the EU, the United States, the United Nations, and Russia, remains the only blueprint for settlement, neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leaders appear keen to implement it.
The Palestinian authority is routinely criticized for still not having brought the security forces under the single command of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, and for not doing enough to stop terrorism. Israel, on the other hand, is said to be undermining the road map with the continued construction of its security fence, which in a number of places extends into Palestinian territory. He said the EU should prepare "incremental steps" to get the peace process back on track and coax greater U.S. support. The EU's Irish presidency is presently working on a strategy document on the bloc's relations with the Middle East and the Arab world.