Accessibility links

Breaking News

EU: Foreign, Defense Ministers Meeting Today In Brussels

European Union foreign ministers are holding their monthly meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow. The agenda will be dominated by Iraq and the Middle East peace process. Other significant items include relations with the western Balkans and preparations for the upcoming EU-Russia summit. In parallel, EU defense ministers meet today and will hold two joint sessions with the foreign ministers to discuss priorities and ongoing EU missions. RFE/RL reports from Brussels.

Brussels, 19 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As has become the norm in recent months, European Union foreign ministers -- meeting today and tomorrow in Brussels -- will devote most of their time to discussions involving the interlinked issues of Iraq and the Middle East peace process.

One EU official said today's debate will cover "familiar territory," the aim being to "keep the discussion going" and to search for common ground that would enable the bloc to "speak with a stronger voice."

The European Commission and the office of Javier Solana, the bloc's foreign policy chief, have launched preparations for potential EU reconstruction aid for Iraq. But as Emma Udwin, a European Commission (EC) spokeswoman, made clear on 16 May, the member states have not yet reached a decision on whether and when to sanction actual EU involvement.

"You will remember that at the Gymnich [generic term for informal EU foreign ministers' meetings, held in Greece at the beginning of May], we were authorized to begin discussions with international institutions. [The aim was] not to take action toward reconstructing Iraq but to start 'pre-planning,' "Udwin said.

An EU official, briefing reporters in Brussels, said on 16 May that the intra-EU discussion is being lent a certain sense of urgency by the fact that the UN resolutions currently governing the "oil-for-food" program in Iraq will expire on 3 June.

The official said that both the EC and Solana have initiated wide-ranging contacts with international organizations. On 16 May, the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, met with UN Deputy Undersecretary Louis Frechet. Today, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, will arrive for talks in Brussels.

However, the official said the EU can only proceed with actual reconstruction aid once "international security architecture in Iraq becomes acceptable" and a new "all-important" UN Security Council resolution is in place.

The official said that, besides contributing funds, the EU could also use its considerable experience to play a coordinating role in the reconstruction of the country.

The Middle East peace process will be a closely related topic. Solana and George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister chairing the meeting, will brief ministers on their recent visits to the Middle East. EU ministers are also expected to discuss U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent visit to the region, as well as take stock of the meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas over the weekend.

The ministers are expected to adopt a joint declaration on the Middle East peace process. Officials say the EU's primary concern will be with the road map agreed by the United States, the EU, the United Nations, and Russia last December and published for the first time earlier this month. The road map envisages a two-state solution to the crisis, with an independent Palestinian state emerging in 2005.

One official said on 16 May that the EU will continue to insist that the road map remains the "best shot by the international community for peace." The official's comments reflect fears within the bloc that the road map could be implemented selectively and not in its entirety. The road map has yet to be publicly endorsed by Israel.

The official noted that the "key philosophy" behind the first stage of the road map is that cooperation on security and political talks should go hand in hand, and "you don't put one before the other."

The EU is likely to call on the Palestinian side to follow through with earlier promises to curb terrorism, to bring terrorists to justice, and to clamp down on incitements to terrorism. In return, the EU will continue financially supporting the reform of the Palestinian Authority.

Commissioner Patten is expected to brief EU ministers on the revamp of EU aid announced recently after accusations that some of the earlier "direct budgetary assistance" ended up in the hands of terrorists.

On the other hand, officials say, the EU remains "very concerned" about Israel's expanding "illegal" settlements and the so-called "security war" waged by Tel Aviv. One official noted that travel restrictions and curfews hamper Palestinian reforms, as well as economic recovery, noting that it is "hard to organize elections if you can't travel."

EU relations with the western Balkans will be another major item on today's agenda.

Officials say ministers are likely to address the recent U.S. pressure on the countries in the region to conclude bilateral deals on the International Criminal Court (ICC). Albania has already signed a deal affording U.S. citizens immunity from prosecution, and EU diplomats said on 16 May that Bosnia is likely to follow suit.

EU officials say the bloc expects the western Balkan countries to comply with the guidelines EU foreign ministers laid down last September for such bilateral agreements. The EU's "red lines" then were that any immunity could only cover U.S. citizens on official government-approved overseas missions; that there could be no immunity from intra-national U.S. prosecution; and that the bilateral treaties could not grant the European signatory's own citizens immunity before the ICC.

Officials on 16 May insisted those guidelines must still be followed.

The EU's Greek presidency is expected to present a paper today suggesting the western Balkans be given additional funding. No details were available on 16 May, but European Commission officials said the funds would probably complement the commission's own proposals that the five countries in the region be allocated an extra 70 million euros ($82 million) a year between 2004 and 2006 -- an increase of 15 percent on what had been foreseen until now.

The commission will also give the ministers a preview of a report on the western Balkans it intends to release on 21 May. The document will offer ways of improving cooperation within the evolving stabilization and association process, so they can apply for membership upon reaching "sufficient levels of economic performance and good governance."

One country in the region with which the EU has still to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) -- Serbia and Montenegro -- will come under relatively heavy criticism today for dragging its feet on trade and internal market measures that would enable the bloc to launch a "feasibility study" for an SAA. The country's prime minister, Zoran Zivkovic, will visit Brussels tomorrow.

The fourth and final external relations item on the EU ministers' agenda is relations with Russia and, in particular, preparations for the EU-Russia summit on 31 May.

One EU official said on 16 May that it is unlikely the sides can agree on a joint statement. He said weeks of negotiations have resulted in a deadlock. Whereas the EU thinks "the elements are there for a balanced and substantial joint statement, it takes two to tango." Russia, he said, is unwilling to make reciprocal concessions or to take onboard key EU concerns.

The official said the main points on the Russian agenda are a new EU-Russia Council, a visa-free travel regime with the EU, recognition of "economic and political concerns" resulting from enlargement, and anti-drugs cooperation in Afghanistan.

None of the four are acceptable for the EU in their present form. The EU official said the proposed EU-Russia Council has a "title more clear than its strategic functions." Instead, the EU suggests existing meetings could be made more flexible, or more frequent.

With regard to visa-free travel, the EU has a number of concrete objectives that are "vital for any future improvement of EU-Russia migration discussions," the official said. Among them are an action plan on the fight against organized crime, improved cooperation among law enforcement agencies, and a readmission agreement.

The EU also rejects Russia's "political concerns" related to enlargement, which are a euphemism for attempts to put the Russian-speaking minorities on the agenda of the summit.

The EU official noted on 16 May that the bloc's enlargement is "a positive thing" for the bloc's new neighbors economically and politically. The issue of the Baltic minorities is "regularly" raised by the Russians, the official said, adding that the EU position is "quite clear" -- the situation has improved enormously, partly as a result of the enlargement process. Although the EU will continue to monitor the situation, "the way and intensity with which the Russian side brings this issue up is disproportionate to the reality on the ground."

The EU is also keen to give the environment a central role in relations with Russia. This week, a major framework agreement is scheduled to be signed in Stockholm that will provide Western operators with a legal basis to clean up nuclear waste in northwestern Russia.

But, officials say, EU concerns go beyond nuclear issues. Among other things, the EU wants Russia to ratify the Kyoto protocol, the official said. "If we're in a true partnership with Russia, as we declare and we certainly want to be, we would expect the Russian side to act and ratify the protocol at once."

Finally, the EU would like to see any joint statement reflect the "urgency" it attaches to bringing the conflict in Moldova's separatist Transdniestr region to a resolution. Chechnya, the official said, although unlikely to figure in any joint statement, is nevertheless an object of "the traditional discussion within the EU on whether to have" it included.

In a rare meeting, EU defense ministers will gather today in parallel with the foreign ministers. The ministers will hold two joint sessions of talks.

Talks are expected to focus on an agreement late last month between France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg to create an EU military headquarters independent of NATO. Britain, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands have expressed opposition to the plan, saying NATO should remain as the core of Europe's defense.

External Affairs Commissioner Patten will present a report on ways to better integrate the bloc's armaments industries. Commission sources say the report will ask the member states to start applying the bloc's single market rules to defense procurement and related research and development fields. Officials say the EU would stand to gain significantly in terms of eradicating wasteful duplication and promoting savings via economies of scale.

Officials note Patten will once again highlight a statistic according to which the EU's defense amounts to 60 percent of that of the United States, whereas the results in terms of performance are around 10 percent of those in the United States. Patten will say that even if increasing defense expenditure is difficult in the current economic climate, significant savings could result from better coordination.