An overwhelming majority of member states oppose the launch of entry talks because the government in Zagreb has failed to arrest General Gotovina, who is wanted for alleged war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague.
Arriving at the meeting, Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn told reporters in Brussels that the move -- which was widely expected -- does not mean the EU is closing its door to Croatia.
"We will leave the door open for Croatia today, whatever the decision. The 25 [EU member states] will try to reach a common position. It is the role of the [current Luxembourg EU] presidency to seek common ground. But whatever the decision -- and I can't tell you before the meeting, it hasn't started yet this morning -- but the door for Croatia to Europe will remain open," Asselborn said.
Britain, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries have most vehemently opposed accession talks with Croatia before Gotovina is caught. Many other countries have been persuaded in recent weeks by repeated statements issued by Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at The Hague court. Del Ponte insists that Gotovina is within reach of the Croatian government.
Ahead of the meeting, only Croatia's closest EU neighbors -- Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, and Slovakia -- favored discarding Gotovina's arrest as a precondition. A decision to launch EU entry talks with a candidate country must be taken unanimously.
An EU diplomat told RFE/RL that the ministers' discussion was likely to focus on whether and how the bloc might cushion the blow for Croatia. He said there were member states strongly supporting extending to Croatia the restrictive entry conditions spelled out for Turkey by an EU summit in December 2004. Without specifying its targets, that summit adopted a declaration saying accession talks would not necessarily lead to EU entry and it said certain privileges of membership could be withheld. These terms have so far been seen as exclusively applying to Turkey.
But there was an increasing feeling among member states that offering an underperforming Croatia better terms could harm the bloc's relations with Turkey.
The EU ministers' regular discussion of the situation in the Middle East was expected to focus largely on Lebanon.
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Asselborn told journalists before the start of the meeting that developments in Lebanon are seen by the bloc as an essential factor in the drive for lasting peace in the region.
"The case of Lebanon is obviously topical. We are going to discuss the developments there; we are very attentive to what is going on, because in the EU we believe that [when it comes to] peace in the Middle East, Israel and Palestine are very important countries, but there must be a "comprehensive peace." That is, what happens in Syria and Lebanon and elsewhere is very important," Asselborn said.
Officials suggested the EU would set out two main objectives with regard to developments in Lebanon. First, it wants an independent international inquiry into the assassination of the country's ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri last month (eds: February 14). Secondly, officials say greater attention should be paid to the entire UN Security Council Resolution 1559, part of which demands that Syrian troops withdraw from the country. One EU official noted ahead of the meeting that the resolution also calls for the monitoring of the elections to be held in May, the disbanding of all militia groups, and the re-establishment of government control in all of Lebanon's territory.
The official said the EU was considering ways of supporting the elections. It could send observers, and provide "voter education" and training for domestic observers. An EU team of experts is currently in Lebanon.
Iran was also likely to come up at today's meeting. Britain, Germany, and France -- the countries negotiating with Iran over its nuclear future -- have sent a letter to other EU member states offering an overview of the current state of the talks.
Officials say the bloc's views remain the same. The EU remains committed to working toward a negotiated solution but feels progress has been slow.
Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Asselborn indicated today that the recent U.S. decision to offer certain economic incentives to Iran in return for dropping all uranium-enrichment activities could play an important role.
"As concerns Iran, we have come to a very interesting point in my opinion, because we now have the support of the Americans since the visit of president Bush to Brussels on 22 February and the change [in Washington's policy of nonengagement with Iran]. I believe we will cooperate to persuade the Iranians to do other things than attempt to make a nuclear bomb," Asselborn said.
This week, EU and Iranian officials are meeting in Teheran for a second round of political and trade talks since they were resumed in January. Officials in Brussels say the talks remain conditional on Iran's giving up its uranium-enrichment and -reprocessing program and relying for imported fuel in its civilian nuclear program.
EU foreign ministers were expected to adopt a declaration listing a number of countries on which it intends to table draft resolutions at the annual UN commission on human rights, which convened in Geneva on 14 March.
Officials say that this year, the EU wants to pursue resolutions on Burma/Myanmar, North Korea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The EU Council of Ministers was also expected to launch a joint EU-U.S. initiative on Belarus. And the EU is said to be "taking a strong interest" in Sudan, Colombia, illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and Uzbekistan.
One official said the absence of Chechnya, Iran, and China on the agenda does not mean the EU is "downplaying" those situations. However, the source said the bloc prefers to address human rights issues with these countries through bilateral "human rights dialogues." The official said it is a matter of deciding "what the most effective strategy is for the EU." She said the EU must decide whether it is "getting further with our human rights dialogue if we decide on certain occasions not to take action in Geneva and carry on bilaterally."
The foreign ministers will also seek ways to speed up ongoing talks with Russia that should result in a "strategic partnership" agreement being concluded at the EU-Russia summit in Moscow on 10 May.
An EU official said today that the bloc believes a deal is still possible despite a number of remaining problems. The diplomat said the EU is bracing for a flurry of intensified contacts. EU Commissioners Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Peter Mandelson, responsible respectively for external relations and foreign trade, will travel to Moscow on 21 March. Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Franco Frattinin will meet Russian officials in April.
Considerable potential for discord remains in three of the four "spaces" that make up the prospective strategic partnership.
Under the heading of "Economic Space," the EU is still waiting for Russia to stop demanding payments from EU airlines for rights to cross Siberian airspace. The EU says the payments are demanded in contravention of international aviation laws. The problem has been on the EU-Russia agenda for years. Last year, Russia promised to resolve the issue, but EU officials say Moscow has taken no action.
Under the "Freedom, Security, and Justice" space, the EU expects Russia to sign a readmission agreement committing it to accepting illegal immigrants who enter the bloc via its territory. In return, the EU is offering to ease it visa requirements. Officials in Brussels say Russia would like to separate the two issues and link the readmission treaty instead to its objective of achieving full visa-freedom with the EU.
In discussions on external security, Russia is said to remain reluctant to cooperate with the EU in what the bloc regards as the two parties' "common neighborhood." Diplomats in Brussels say Russia resists EU moves to establish closer links with ex-Soviet republics and has countered by demanding that countries in the western Balkans, too, be included in the "common neighborhood." Using a tactic that is widely seen diversionary by the EU, Moscow has also asked the bloc to support integration within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
The EU is also insisting that Russia must honor its so-called Istanbul commitments to withdraw troops and materiel from Georgia and Moldova, and agree to a "genuine partnership" with the bloc to address frozen conflicts in Transdniestria and the Caucasus.
One European Commission official said today that the Commission urges EU member states to "speak with one voice" to Russia, adding that Moscow has in the past "shown how adept it can be at exploiting differences."
However, divisions within the EU are likely to resurface tomorrow, when President Vladimir Putin meets with German, French, and Spanish leaders for dinner in Paris.