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EU: Foreign Ministers Grapple With 'Wider' Middle East

European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels yesterday, spent much of their time discussing what has become known as the "wider Middle East" -- a designation that comprises the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Iraq and Iran. The area is being increasingly identified as the main priority for the bloc's evolving Common Foreign and Security Policy. In contrast to the damaging internal splits earlier this year on Iraq, yesterday's meeting avoided public acrimony among member states, albeit at the price of putting off difficult decisions.

Brussels, 30 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials are taking to viewing Iraq, Iran, and the stalled Middle East peace process as aspects of the same problem. Although a cohesive "wider Middle East" policy may well be years away, the EU's involvement in the region is increasing.

Nevertheless, as the foreign ministers' deliberations indicated yesterday, the EU's involvement is still significantly checked by its relative lack of power. Much of the bloc's policy is reactive, responding to developments beyond its control.

On Iraq, the bloc has managed to overcome earlier divisions and is now largely united in supporting a "central" UN role and a quick handover of power by the occupying powers to the Iraqis.

Yet there's very little the EU can do to bring about either view independently of the United States. Officials acknowledge its main leverage is financial in nature, although they will not say this publicly.

Yesterday, the EU's external affairs commissioner, Chris Patten, said it is likely the EU will contribute to Iraq's reconstruction. Although he denied that the offer comes with strings attached, Patten indicated the size of the donations could be based on a number of factors.

"The main thing we've been discussing isn't a conditionality, it's the means which we think would be most likely to maximize contributions not just from Europe but international donors as a whole. We've been discussing with others for some time, in what is called the 'core group,' the establishment of a multilateral independent trust fund, working separately from the development fund for Iraq [run by the coalition authority], but obviously closely coordinated with it," Patten said.

EU officials said stability, enhanced security and a transfer of power -- on a "realistic" schedule, as the ministers said yesterday -- would help boost donations.

The commission is preparing to announce a 200 million-euro ($233 million) contribution from the bloc's budget. The sum would cover only the year 2004 and is expected to be added to by individual member states. Officials say the money is roughly equivalent to what is being contributed annually to Afghanistan. If so, it is unlikely to fully satisfy the United States.

Patten left little doubt that the EU is trying to maximize its leverage in Iraq when he noted that at the end of 2004, the bloc expects to be dealing with an "independent, democratic, and sovereign" Iraqi government able to organize its own donor conferences. The foreign ministers' next meeting will assemble the EU bid for the donor conference in Madrid on 23-24 October.

Turning to Iran, EU foreign ministers were forced to suspend the fighting talk of their July meeting when Tehran was given until September to sign a UN protocol allowing for intrusive nuclear inspections or face the collapse of lucrative trade talks with the EU.

Officials yesterday insisted the EU has no choice but to await the 31 October deadline set by the International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this month.

However, July's tough talk was conspicuous in its absence last night when Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, speaking for the current EU Presidency, said the bloc is "concerned" about the situation but is still trying to encourage "critical and constructive" dialogue with Iran.

One EU official told RFE/RL that although the ministers yesterday asked Iran to "refrain from fuel-cycle activities which can be used to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons," the bloc is not against Tehran establishing a civilian nuclear industry. But, the official said, Iran needs to be transparent to "prove" it's solely dealing with civilian needs.

The official added that the EU believes the offer of a trade deal gives it leverage against Iran, which will need to generate economic activity to keep as much of its young population employed as possible.

The ministers yesterday said that as a sign of good will, Iran has agreed to a human rights dialogue in Brussels on 5-6 October between representatives of civil society. Ironically, the debate will take place behind closed doors.

Finally, on the Middle East, the EU ministers did unveil an initiative of sorts, calling for greater cooperation among U.S., UN, EU, and Russian envoys when monitoring the parties' compliance with the Quartet's "road map" to peace.

Javier Solana, the EU's security coordinator, said last night that greater cooperation will increase the effectiveness of the Quartet. "The envoys -- the envoy of the United States on the ground; the envoy of the European Union, Mr. [Marc] Otte, [also] on the ground; the envoy of the [UN] secretary-general; the envoy of the Russian Federation -- are going to meet periodically on the ground to make an analysis together every month or twice a month, so we can have every month a comprehensive report, not only of the different players of the Quartet, but a comprehensive report of the Quartet itself, that we can no doubt hear before the General Affairs Council [the monthly EU foreign ministers' meeting] to have the possibility also of putting [it] at the disposal of the ministers," Solana said.

Solana said the EU also expects the new administration of Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qurei to appoint a team to work with the Quartet's envoys. He did not say whether a similar request will be made of Israel.

Italian Foreign Minister Frattini said Israel was sent a "clear message" by the EU yesterday to avoid acts that could obstruct dialogue -- such as the exiling of Yasser Arafat, or reprisals against Palestinian militants.

However, Frattini stressed, Israel has a right to self-defense, adding that "terrorism must be defeated." He called for the role of the Quartet's envoys to be broadened to take in Lebanon and Syria.

Frattini said the EU expects Qurei to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, whose resignation, according to Frattini, was partly the result of lacking the means to dismantle terrorist organizations. The EU has repeatedly demanded that the Palestinian administration put control over its security forces in the hands of a single minister.