The EU ministers will kick off with a review of talks on Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Officials say a high-level European Commission visit to Moscow last week achieved "significant progress" on some outstanding issues, such as tariffs and services. They say both Brussels and Moscow hope Russia can join the WTO before the end of this year.
The ministers will finish the day with sensitive discussions aimed at removing the last obstacles from the path of an extension of the EU-Russia partnership treaty to the bloc's new members. Moscow has submitted to the EU a list of conditions, most of which have now been met.
A deal to include a reference to the protection of "minorities" in the joint EU-Russia statement expected to be signed tomorrow is also close. Diplomats say both Estonia and Latvia can accept a formulation that does not name them and refers in general terms to "human rights" and "minorities."
The EU foreign ministers are expected to adopt a statement today on the Middle East peace process.
A spokeswoman for the European Commission, Emma Udwin, told RFE/RL on 23 April that the statement will reflect the conclusions of an earlier EU discussion two weeks ago. She said the statement will mostly address the implications of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza promised by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
"What the EU foreign ministers feel is that although [the Israeli] withdrawal from Gaza is welcome, it will be most successful and most effective if it is conducted in the context of the 'road map' [internationally backed peace plan] that's been endorsed by the whole of the international community and by the two partners, by Israel and Palestine," Udwin said. "So, we want to see this unilateral plan brought back under the context of the road map, and any final status issues must be resolved by a process of negotiation; they can't be imposed by one side on the other."
An EU official said on condition of anonymity that other EU demands include a request that Israel must facilitate the rehabilitation of Gaza after its withdrawal. The EU says that in previous incursions into Palestinian areas, Israel has destroyed buildings and other projects financed by the EU worth 24 million euros ($28.3 million).
The EU will also ask for unimpeded access to Gaza for humanitarian help. Officials say the bloc will launch talks with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to set up a trust fund for international donors.
EU sources say the bloc will continue to support the Palestinian Authority to make it -- as one official put it -- "a more legitimate governing body." The EU will continue to push for elections. Further reforms will remain a precondition for EU financial assistance.
One official said the EU's need to support the Palestinian Authority is especially important as the planned Israeli withdrawal from Gaza "runs the risk, if not properly coordinated with the Palestinians, of handing power and success to Hamas."
At the request of the EU's current Irish Presidency, the ministers will discuss the bloc's arms embargo on China. The EU has in recent months come under intense pressure from Beijing to lift the ban, which was imposed after the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The United States and Japan, on the other hand, have lobbied EU capitals hard to keep the embargo in place.
European Commission spokeswoman Udwin said on 23 April that no decisions are expected before the Irish Presidency runs out in June.
She said the Irish Presidency has made clear that there are still a great number of complex issues to be discussed, and it doesn't expect them to be resolved during its tenure at the EU helm -- in other words, not before the end of June.
Udwin said among the issues that need to be considered is the effect lifting the embargo would have in the region.
"Now those issues that require further attention are: What about the code of conduct -- the European Union has a nonbinding code of conduct on arms exports. Is it tough enough if the arms embargo were to be lifted or would it need strengthening? What would the implications be in the region, particularly given the postelectoral situation in Taiwan? And, does the EU feel that there's been sufficient progress in human rights in China to justify the lifting of the arms embargo, given that it was imposed after a significant human rights abuse in Tiananmen Square?" Udwin said.
A number of EU member states are said to be dismayed that some Tiananmen protesters are still held in prison.
China's prime minister will visit Brussels on 6 May.
The main issue under the Western Balkans heading will be Kosovo. The EU ministers are expected to adopt a statement reaffirming the EU's "strong commitment" to a multiethnic Kosovo. Officials say the document will also state a number of priorities for the immediate future. Those are to ensure public security, reconstruct property destroyed in the March riots, and bring to justice those responsible.
European Commission spokeswoman Udwin said on 23 April that the EU ministers will repeat their long-term view that Kosovo's future status cannot be discussed before certain standards of democracy and the rule of law have been attained.
"We believe that the standards -- as they're called -- that have been set for Kosovo to advance in its treatment of ethnic minorities, its progress toward democracy and so on, are still what is needed," Udwin said. "Now, the promise that has been made to Kosovo is: If sufficient progress is made on those standards, there could be the beginnings of a discussion on its final status, perhaps in mid-2005. But I think what you will see from this council is a very firm statement insisting that we have to look at the standards first and status afterward. There is no shortcut to status that doesn't go through a process of reform and improvement on the ground."
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity said on 23 April that some EU member states have indicated they would like to launch "reflections" on Kosovo's final status now. But, the official said, this does not mean any relaxation of the bloc's insistence on progress in standards.
Another expected EU statement today will call for a strong turnout in Macedonia's 28 April presidential election.
The EU's External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten will also formally inform EU member states of the European Commission's recommendation last week to open membership talks with Croatia. A final decision is not expected before the EU's June summit.