European Union foreign ministers will gather in the small Spanish town of Caceres on 8-9 February to discuss the costs of EU enlargement, the situation in the Middle East and developments in the Balkans. The meeting will be informal, with relatively few officials and interpreters present, and no formal decisions will be taken. Yet observers expect the emergence of important new EU positions in all fields under discussion, which will be fleshed out more formally over the coming months.
Brussels, 7 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- This weekend's meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Caceres, Spain -- 240 kilometers southwest of Madrid -- will follow what are known in EU circles as the relaxed "Gymnich" rules, after the first such meeting at the Schloss Gymnich near Bonn, Germany, in 1974.
A "Gymnich" meeting is usually held once in the course of each of the EU's half-yearly rotating presidencies at a relatively secluded location. Such meetings are designed to give foreign ministers the opportunity to discuss often delicate political issues outside the glare of public attention.
The EU is faced with important decisions in all three fields under consideration at Caceres -- enlargement, the Middle East, and the Balkans.
Perhaps the most momentous topic is that of financing the EU's enlargement, a topic recently launched in earnest by the European Commission with its preliminary report on how and to what degree the EU can pay for it. The commission recommended that enlargement costs not overshoot the budgetary ceilings already fixed for 2000-06. It also recommended a longer "phase-in" period before new members fully benefit from the EU's generous agricultural subsidies and regional aid support.
While no current member state is interested in breaching the so-called Berlin budget ceilings agreed to in 1999, there is considerable controversy about what should happen after 2006.
Large contributors to the EU budget, led by Germany, would like the EU to reform its Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, which consumes about half its budget, and either abolish or substantially reduce subsidies after 2006.
Others nations, like France, but also the European Commission itself -- which must mediate between individual member states, as well as candidate countries -- are adamant that accession negotiations and the reform of EU policies be kept separate.
Proponents of the latter argument say that linking CAP reform to the negotiations risks provoking debates that could delay enlargement for years. Behind the argument lurks in many cases an unwillingness to sacrifice subsidies to enlargement too soon.
Germany will get its chance to raise the issue of reform -- and of substantially cutting its budget contributions to the EU -- in June, when the commission will initiate a "mid-budget term" review of the CAP.
Significantly, this means substantive talks on CAP reform could take place after enlargement negotiations are concluded at the end of this year but before new members join the EU in 2004. Keeping candidates out of the discussions could eventually suit both Germany and large aid recipients like France better than waiting until 2004-05, when new members -- especially Poland and its large, backward agricultural sector -- will have full voting rights.
Talks at Caceres should prepare the ground for a draft EU negotiating position on the so-called "money chapters" of EU law that candidates must negotiate before accession. However, a final position will not emerge before early fall, after national elections in both France and Germany.
The second main issue on the table at Caceres will be the deteriorating situation in the Middle East.
Although EU officials privately say that no single EU strategy on the issue is likely to emerge, pressure to do something is great. As one official put it: "The EU does not want to sit on the sidelines and observe an ever-degrading situation in a neighboring region."
The EU's aims are relatively clear. This is how the bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, put it on 5 February when speaking before the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
"We, as Europeans, have a tremendous amount of work to do there [in the Middle East] to try to bring the societies together, because they will have to live together. Therefore, whatever we can do through the parliament, through the institutions, through the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], it has to be done," Solana said.
In practical terms, there are two initiatives on the table, originating from Rome and Paris.
Italy's acting foreign minister -- and full-time prime minister -- Silvio Berlusconi has suggested an international conference be held on the issue, with the participation of Israel, the Palestinians and the four dominant global partners -- the United States, the EU, Russia, and the United Nations.
According to EU officials, however, many member states share the view expressed by External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten on 5 February that, although such a conference could serve an important purpose at some later stage, the conditions for it do not exist today, and a number of essential parties would simply not attend.
The second initiative, presented by France, proposes granting international recognition to the state of Palestine on the condition that both Palestine and Israel recognize each other's right to exist. According to unconfirmed reports in French newspapers, the move would next be "infused with democratic legitimacy" in the form of elections in Palestinian areas to offer "the forces of peace" a chance to demonstrate their popular superiority over extremists. Under the proposal, the new Palestinian state would only gradually assume control over all of its territory, parts of which are currently occupied by Israel.
More topically however, the EU ministers will have to grapple with how to respond to the continuing destruction of EU-financed infrastructure by Israeli forces. A letter sent recently by Spain's Foreign Minister Josep Pique to his Israeli colleague Shimon Peres has so far produced no response. However, EU officials yesterday said they were impressed by Peres's "openness of mind" when he said in a recent interview that Israel would, in principle, be prepared to discuss compensation for the damage.
Finally, the EU foreign ministers will discuss the situation in the Balkans. Working to avoid the secession of Montenegro from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the EU has sent officials to mediate in Belgrade and Podgorica and this week hosted a seminar of economic experts from both Serbia and Montenegro in Brussels.
The EU foreign ministers are also expected to examine the future of NATO's "Amber Fox" force in Macedonia. About 900 NATO soldiers are deployed in Macedonia as part of the mission, which is scheduled to end March 26. The EU's current presidency, Spain, has said the EU should replace NATO in running the force, but EU officials in Brussels say a number of important issues remain open.
Among others, the position of Macedonia's government on the issue is not fully clear. Also, although the EU's rapid reaction force was declared partially operational in December, Greece's objections to a deal with Turkey mean that the EU force would lack access to NATO assets vital for the operation.