Accessibility links

Breaking News

EU: Foreign Ministers To Discuss Kaliningrad, Enlargement, Middle East

Enlargement issues, as well as relations with Israel and Kaliningrad, dominate the agenda of a meeting that will also make final preparations for the EU summit in Brussels later this week. RFE/RL looks at what is expected from the Luxembourg meeting.

Brussels, 21 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Union foreign ministers will open their summit today with a long-awaited meeting with their Israeli colleague Shimon Peres, who will attend a scheduled session of the EU-Israeli Association Council.

Officials in Brussels say the EU will hand Peres a declaration that "couldn't be clearer" in insisting that Israel fully observe human rights in the occupied territories. Israel's policy of "collective punishment" -- the practice of retaliating against the families of suspected terrorists -- will come under heavy criticism, as will stringent Israeli curfew rules and obstacles put in the path of humanitarian aid agencies. The EU will also demand that Israel lift the economic blockade against Palestinian territories and release the tax and customs revenues due to the Palestinian Authority under earlier accords.

Most EU member states also appear ready to toughen the bloc's stance in a trade dispute with Israel over taxing imports originating from Israeli settlements in occupied territories. The EU, which is the second-biggest market for Israeli exports, has exempted Israeli goods from normal trade tariffs but says Israel frequently ignores a provision in the agreement that says the benefits only extend to products originating from within the internationally recognized frontiers of the country.

All EU member states, with the exception of Sweden, already ask Israeli importers for deposits covering the difference in tariffs, which will only be returned if Israeli authorities can incontrovertibly prove that the goods did not originate from the occupied territories.

Commission officials say Israel has promised to submit proposals today to clear up the situation, but there are doubts about whether the dispute can be settled anytime soon. If not, the EU says it will go to international arbitration, which is something EU officials say "Israel itself is not interested in" due to the "clear-cut" nature of the case.

Most of this afternoon will be spent on preparing for the EU-Russia summit in Copenhagen on 11 November. Its core issue, Kaliningrad, will also be debated tomorrow.

An EU official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that according to some descriptions, "a Russian and a Lithuanian faction" has emerged among the member states. Led by France and Italy, a minority of member states still argue for concessions to Russia. The official said the main issues in the debate were the precise timing of a feasibility study on high-speed trains through Lithuania allowing Russian citizens visa-free access to Kaliningrad and what assurances could be offered Russia in response to its demand for fully visa-free relations with all EU countries.

Both issues were ostensibly settled at the last EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels last month, when a declaration approved by all member states said Lithuania would decide on the train plans after acceding to the EU and that the issue of visa-free relations would not be linked to Kaliningrad. It now appears, however, that the debate is far from settled.

France, Italy, Spain, and Greece are opposed by most other EU member states. The EU official quoted above said "very strong feelings" are involved, with some countries warning that undue pressure on Lithuania would compromise its rights as a future EU member. Certain EU member states, thought to be led by Finland, are also strongly opposed to any promises of dropping the EU visa requirement against Russia altogether.

The source could not say how the EU will react to a decree adopted by the Lithuanian parliament earlier this month committing the government to agreeing to an EU proposal of a special "Kaliningrad pass" for Russian frequent travelers only if it is valid for travel throughout the entire Schengen area.

The third major item on the EU foreign ministers' agenda is enlargement. The EU's current Danish presidency has hinted to member states that this week's Brussels summit could finally see an agreement on a common stance on financing enlargement, the final EU common position missing from the negotiations table. However, Germany has made it clear it first needs a deal with France on agricultural expenditures after 2006, when the EU's current budget runs out. Chances of a deal before the Brussels summit appear slim.

The meeting in Luxembourg will also provide EU governments with their first opportunity to sound out the views of the Dutch caretaker cabinet after the collapse of the ruling coalition last week. Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende said late last week that his government would not block enlargement, but his government's communications with the country's parliament, whose approval it must secure for all major decisions before elections, indicate the Netherlands could press for revisions of the European Commission's recommendation on 9 October that 10 candidate countries are ready to join the EU in 2004.

EU foreign ministers are also expected to debate Iraq. An EU official said on 18 October that the EU is "no longer afraid" of the topic, predicting "imminent" agreement in the United Nations' Security Council over a French plan that would put off the automatic use of force against Iraq before weapons inspectors return to the country with an extended mandate.

Relations with Iran will also be raised. EU officials describe as "very important" Iran's recent acquiescence to a regular human rights dialogue, which will run in parallel with trade negotiations to be launched in December. However, some member states are expected to criticize Iran for dragging its feet over human rights recently, which could translate into EU support for a critical motion on the issue at the UN General Assembly.