Concerning Iraq, officials say EU foreign ministers will give the green light to a medium-term strategy for relations unveiled last week by the European Commission. The bloc's summit later this week (17-18 June) is expected to follow suit.
The strategy sets out EU objectives through three phases in Iraq's projected passage to democracy -- from the handover of sovereignty later this month, to provisional elections, and finally to the fully free elections envisaged at the end of 2005.
Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin says the strategy has been well received among EU member states.
"The European Commission has set out a mid-term strategy with three phases -- the immediate, the postelection, and then the medium-term for rebuilding and normalizing Europe's relationship with Iraq. I'm glad to say that's been very well received by the member states. It'll be looked at by foreign ministers [today] and then by heads of states by [18 June], and I expect it then to become the basis of the next step we will take to build a political and diplomatic relationship with Iraq," Udwin said.
Officials say the ministers will discuss Iraq over lunch, which means a lively informal exchange is expected. They say the ministers will mainly assess current developments.
EU member states will need to consider whether to invite one of the ministers in the interim Iraqi government to visit Brussels, or whether to send an EU delegation to visit Iraq. Developing contacts with the Iraqi civil society will also be high on the immediate agenda, as will be ways to support the electoral processes.
Officials say much will depend on the security situation. This is one of the reasons why they brush off suggestions the EU should name a special envoy to Iraq. The commission has indicated it would like to open an office in Baghdad -- but only "when the security situation allows.” A European Commission representation will shortly be set up in Amman, Jordan.
Officials say that in the longer term, the EU would like to see Iraq benefit from its extensive network of contacts with the country's neighbors in the region. In parallel, the June summit is expected to endorse an EU strategy for the Arab countries to the east of the Mediterranean, in which Iraq will eventually have a place. Apart from political dialogue, trade concessions would also be on offer.
Officials say there is no "coordinated" EU position as yet as to what degree to relieve Iraq's debt burden. This is an objective promoted by the United States, but recent EU statements have made pointed references to Iraq's natural wealth.
Concerning Iran, the discussion of the situation is expected to be short, owing to the near-simultaneous start of the meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, where Iran will also feature prominently.
Eleven EU member states are on the IAEA board, and the discussions are expected to overlap.
Officials said on 11 June that the EU regards the latest report on Iran by the IAEA's director Muhammad el-Baradei as a "balanced" account, containing both criticism and praise.
However, Iran's assertion over the weekend of the right to join the "nuclear club" is certain to liven up debate.
Concerns over Iran's nuclear policy led to a suspension of trade talks by the EU exactly a year ago. However, EU officials still say the bloc is still interested in dialogue. They point to an informal human rights exchange, another round of which will take place in Tehran today and tomorrow.
Commission spokeswoman Udwin told RFE/RL on 11 June that such contacts remain important.
"The human rights dialogue allows us to do two things. It allows [us] to raise particular individual cases we are concerned about directly with the Iranian government. It also allows us to organize real civil society exchanges between judges, academics, NGOs on both sides to discuss issues about human rights in Iran. Now, on this occasion, the chief topic is the administration of justice. We think that these exchanges continue to be valuable, though I can't disguise the fact that we have been somewhat disappointed by the slow pace of reform on the ground," Udwin said.
Officials say the human rights dialogue has been particularly useful for the discussion of individual cases, where experience shows best results are achieved in conditions that are not -- as one official noted -- "massively public."
EU officials note some positive developments, such as the moratorium on stoning sentences for adultery, and Iran's acceptance of some UN rapporteurs.
However, there appears to be an "overall disappointment" about Iran's human rights record, the conduct of recent elections, as well as curbs on the freedom of expression.
On Afghanistan, EU ministers are expected to decide to rule out the dispatch of a full mission to observe elections in September -- in favor of sending a smaller observer team. EU officials point to severe security concerns and say they are trying to find a balance between guaranteeing the security of their personnel and supporting the electoral process.
Spokeswoman Udwin says the decision still means the EU supports the elections.
"The European Union has a huge amount of experience and, I think, is internationally respected for the way it observes elections around the world. But we don't want to devalue that reputation by carrying out a mission that wouldn't be credible. And the security situation on the ground is such that you just couldn't do it, you wouldn't be able to reach all parts of the country and your personnel would not be safe. So, what we've done is to come up with a solution that will still give a great deal of support to the Afghans themselves and to our special representative in Kabul. We'll be sending personnel, we're asking member states to send personnel, but it would be a more localized mission. It would mean we're supporting the Afghans, we're doing our best to get good, credible information about the conduct of the elections out, but it will not be as comprehensive as a European election observation mission would normally be," Udwin said.
Speaking privately, one official said a full observer mission would not be possible in a situation where monitors would need constant military protection. Instead, the official said the EU is looking for "alternative methods" for Afghanistan and -- in future -- Iraq. In Afghanistan's case, 20 to 25 observers will be sent to Kabul and eight other urban areas.
EU officials note that no other country or international organization has so far decided to field a full observer mission. They also note that 20 aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan this year, some in areas regarded previously as safe.
EU officials last week acknowledged the elections on 30 September will in all likelihood be confined to the selection of a president. The holding of simultaneous parliamentary elections is seen as virtually ruled out. Over the past months, EU officials have warned that without a parliament the president would have virtually unchecked powers. Inevitably, some of Afghanistan's ethnic groups would not feel represented. However, on 11 June an official said that as advances in disarmament and demobilization were unlikely in the foreseeable future, delaying the elections would serve no purpose.
The ministers will touch on the Middle East peace process. Officials say the EU remains concerned about the situation on the ground in Gaza. An EU aid package for Gaza is expected to be unveiled in early July, expected to run to 200 million euros ($241 million) this year.
One official said last week that a debate is evolving among potential international donors on Israel's own responsibilities as an occupying power in Gaza. He noted that the UN Security Council has reminded Israel of its obligations. The official referred to the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, ratified by Israel, which regulates the treatment of civilians by an occupying power. It places obligations on the occupying power as regards the treatment of civilians, the repair of the damage caused, assistance to the civilian population in need, and the displacement of population.
Concerning the Balkans, EU ministers are expected to issue a statement relating to the weekend's presidential elections in Serbia.
The ministers are also likely to indicate that accession talks with Croatia can begin early next year. EU diplomats say the length of the ratification procedure of the eventual accession treaty means the country cannot accede to the bloc on 1 January 2007 together with Bulgaria and Romania.
The ministers will also discuss a replacement for the recently resigned UN special representative to Kosovo, Harri Holkeri. No decisions are expected today.