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EU: Foreign Ministers' Meeting to Be Dominated By Middle East

European Union officials say today's monthly meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg will largely be dominated by developments in the Middle East. Although no major decisions are predicted, officials say an outright failure of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's peace mission or a significant deterioration of the situation on the ground could prompt calls for tougher action by some EU member countries. RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at the ministers' agenda.

Luxembourg, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg today and tomorrow, will once again be preoccupied by the situation in the Middle East.

An EU official who asked not to be named said discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will take up most of this afternoon. The official said that although no major decisions are expected, everything will ultimately depend on the progress made during U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's ongoing peace mission to the Middle East.

The official said EU ministers are likely to agree that a "clear, major humanitarian crisis" is in the making in the Middle East, where what he called "massive human rights violations" are taking place. He said humanitarian aid agencies and representatives of the media have no access to sites where military operations are under way.

The EU official predicted "difficult discussions" among EU foreign ministers about what should be done in the short-term.

He said a division is becoming apparent among EU member states. The official said there are capitals that would like to focus exclusively on the "renewed international momentum" toward achieving a cease-fire and an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns, as well as the start of comprehensive peace talks. There are others, however, who would like to see "immediate action" to encourage both parties -- but in particular Israel -- to halt its military operations.

The official said a consensus could be built on the recent German peace plan, which he described as "far-reaching and ambitious." He said the plan, unveiled earlier in April, goes beyond most earlier EU thinking.

He said the plan foresees the swift creation of a Palestinian state. It also provides, in the course of the first two years, for the full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. In parallel, the two sides would hold talks during those two years on the "final status," which in turn would be guaranteed by an international security presence.

The official said the European Commission's call for the immediate convening of the EU-Israeli Association Council to discuss bilateral relations at the level of foreign ministers is unlikely to be unanimously welcomed by member states. He indicated however, that the Commission is already contemplating possible trade sanctions against Israel should EU member states authorize them. The official noted that roughly 30 per cent of all Israeli imports come from the EU, while 40 percent of the country's exports go to the EU.

The EU foreign ministers will today also discuss developments in the Balkans. The official said the ministers are likely to welcome the recent adoption by Yugoslavia of a law on the extradition of persons indicted for war crimes.

Enlargement will be addressed briefly, the EU official said, but ministers are expected to draw no formal conclusions beyond noting that the timetables agreed at the Nice, Gothenburg, and Laeken summits -- envisaging the first wave of accessions taking place in 2004 -- would have to be respected.

Following an initiative from Great Britain, the ministers will also launch a debate on the future of the "wider Europe," which will analyze the relations of an enlarged European Union with neighbors like Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah will attend part of the meeting and will hear EU concerns over poppy cultivation, the creation of a new Afghan army, the general security situation in the country, and the financial mechanisms of aid distribution. As concerns the latter, the EU official said, there are suspicions in some EU circles that the aid donated does not translate into "equivalent value" internally.

Finally, EU foreign ministers will also discuss the bloc's cooperation with NATO, which is necessary to get the EU's fledgling security and defense project off the ground. According to the EU official, "slow but steady progress" is being made in overcoming Greece's objections to a deal with Turkey, which would open the door to the EU using NATO assets. He said the problem could be overcome in the not too distant future.

Among other things, a deal with NATO is necessary to enable the EU to take over the Amber Fox peacekeeping operation in Macedonia.