Officials say the EU is examining ways to extend support for the interim government, in particular in light of elections scheduled for January. A new aid package will be drawn up, streamlining ongoing efforts and adding new elements.
Briefing Brussels journalists ahead of today's meeting, an EU official -- who asked not to be named -- said support for the elections is seen by the bloc as the centerpiece of the package. The EU has already pledged 30 million euros ($38 million) for this goal. It also plans to send EU experts to support the Iraqi election commission and is working on a training program for domestic Iraqi election observers, which is to take place outside the country.
The EU could also take steps to support a protection force for a UN mission in Iraq. The EU source said the United Nations is seen as playing a "very central" role in preparations for the elections.
The EU is already taking its first steps toward preparing the ground for a cooperation agreement with Iraq. The precise nature of the agreement will not become clear before a fully legitimate government is in place next year, however.
The EU is also contemplating dispatching a "rule of law" mission to Iraq to train senior law-enforcement officials, including the police, judges, and penitentiary staff.
The foreign ministers are expected to agree on a statement today outlining the elements of the planned support package.
EU officials say the bloc intends to signal clearly this week that "time is getting short" for Iran to comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requests. Crucial among them is a commitment to suspend uranium-enrichment activity for an indefinite period of time. The IAEA board meeting on 25 November is expected to decide whether to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.
The EU official quoted earlier said the bloc wants to help Iran find ways toward compliance with IAEA. The bloc is planning an updated approach that includes "both carrots and sticks." The main "stick" is a referral to the UN Security Council. This, the official said, doesn't necessarily mean immediate sanctions, but it would represent an "escalation" of the situation.
The EU source said the bloc wants to avoid any escalation if possible. Although Iranian lawmakers voted late last week to commit the government to a resumption of enrichment activity, the ministers are expected to state that the best way ahead for Iran is to comply with IAEA demands and give the assurances required concerning enrichment.
Although the EU agrees that Iran has a right to use nuclear power for civilian purposes, it believes Iran must now rebuild confidence. The official quoted above said there is now a "question mark" over Iran's intentions, largely as a result of discoveries made by IAEA inspectors, and Iran needs to give "assurances" that would enable a rebuilding of international trust.
The official said the "carrot side" of the EU strategy contains a resumption of trade talks suspended last year. The official said the EU still supports a gradual approach, irrespective of whether developments take a negative or positive turn later this month. The "worst-case scenario" for the bloc would be one in which Iran is isolated and all opportunity for dialogue lost.
The EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana will present the ministers with an outline of a revamped EU strategy for short-term action in the Middle East. This is expected to take the form of an oral statement and will not be distributed as a document. Solana will outline a series of concrete, short-term steps that the EU can sponsor at what officials describe as a "very low point" in the peace process.
Briefing journalists, the EU official stressed that the Solana plan is not an alternative to the so-called road map to peace sponsored by the United States, the EU, the United Nations, and Russia.
The EU has supported an evolving Israeli disengagement plan for Gaza, but officials say it must be "steered back" toward long-term objectives contained in the road map, where a two-state solution is a clear objective.
One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on 29 October that any Israeli withdrawal from Gaza must be unconditional. The EU is asking for free access to aid workers, guarantees for the safety of personnel and projects it has financed, as well as Israeli facilitation of the rehabilitation of Gaza after the disengagement.
The official said the EU is satisfied with Palestinian plans for national elections, although there are questions regarding preparations for local elections. The EU will support both polls financially, having already earmarked 10 million euros ($12.7 million).
EU foreign ministers will on today discuss preparations for the forthcoming summit with Russia in The Hague on 11 November. Officials confirm that fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin might boycott the summit have now been dispelled.
However, grave differences remain. Officials say Russia, supported by France and Italy, is pushing for a selective approach with regard to the so-called four "spaces" that it has agreed to set up with the EU. The "spaces" include external and internal security, the economy, and cooperation in the spheres of culture, research, and education.
Russia is unwilling to bow to pressure from most EU member states to address all four "spaces" simultaneously and is asking for agreements covering only some of the subjects. Diplomats say the "space" of internal security -- covering justice and home affairs -- is particularly contentious. Differences between Russia and the EU are unlikely to be resolved in the short term.
Officials in Brussels say Russia has for years had a tendency to "cherry-pick" issues on which it would like to cooperate with the EU. A lack of coordination among EU member states has made this possible for Russia, resulting in slow progress on items of interest for the EU at large.
The ministers will reexamine EU relations with Belarus in the aftermath of the widely criticized parliamentary elections last month, as well as the referendum that took place in parallel and gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka the mandate to run for a third term.
One EU official said on 29 October that the long-term EU approach of limiting contacts with Belarus to the rotating EU presidency and confining aid to civil society is seen as failing. The official said the strategy "isn't bringing the results the EU hoped for" and that new ways of supporting civil society and "forces of democracy" may need to be found.
Most member states, as well as the European Commission, are keen to ensure that any action does not further isolate Belarus. The official quoted above said the EU doesn't want to "send a message abandoning the Belarusian people because of Lukashenka's regime. "
This appears to rule out any immediate moves toward further restrictive measures going beyond limited visa bans. Instead, a statement prepared for the foreign ministers will outline ways to reinforce contacts with pro-democracy groups in Belarus, as well as students and other ordinary citizens.
Responding to suggestions recently put forward by mainly Polish deputies in the European Parliament, the ministers are likely to signal a willingness to increase support for independent media, students, and civil society. The current EU budget for Belarus in 2005 and 2006 is 10 million euros ($12.7 million).