BRUSSELS -- European Union foreign ministers have welcomed President Barack Obama's decision to close down the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay within a year, but did not offer refuge to any of the inmates about to be released, saying the matter needs further study.
At a meeting in Brussels today to discuss the issue, internal divisions and legal wrangles scuppered a drive headed by Portugal, Spain, and France to commit the EU to admitting as many as 60 of the remaining 245 Guantanamo detainees when they are released by U.S. authorities.
Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, representing the EU's current presidency, said the bloc welcomes Obama's decision to close down Guantanamo, but he reiterated the majority EU view that the United States remains ultimately responsible for the fate of the Guantanamo detainees, despite the bloc's willingness to cooperate.
"The primary responsibility for closing Guantanamo rests with the United States," he said, "but ministers discussed whether there were ways in which they could assist the United States given our common interest in counterterrorism, human rights, and the rule of law."
Schwarzenberg said that owing to the complicated "political, legal and security issues" surrounding Guantanamo, a joint EU "political response" requires further study.
National Asylum Laws
Political divisions do exist within the EU, with countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and others having indicated they are concerned that any EU help in dismantling Guantanamo could be seen as a form of justification for controversial Bush-era practices like secret detention and "enhanced" interrogation.
But it was the legal complexity of the issue that took center stage in Brussels, highlighting the cumbersome nature of the EU's internal division of power. Despite attempts at harmonization, asylum law remains a national matter within the bloc.
And the complexity is not only restricted to a long-running tug-of-war between Brussels and national capitals. One EU diplomat at the meeting pointed to the so-called "Schengen space" -- encompassing most, but not all EU countries -- within which internal borders are no longer controlled.
"What happens if a person is resettled in one country and then boards a train to go and live in another?" he asked, adding: "How precisely is it going to work with one country entering into an agreement with another about a citizen of a third country? What happens if that citizen then breaks the law in his host country?"
"It is pointless to discuss repatriation in earnest before all of these questions are answered," he said.
Proceeding With Care
But others point to a precedent set in 2002, when six EU countries -- Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, and Greece -- admitted 12 alleged Palestinian terrorists as part of a deal to get Israel to end a siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where more than 200 Palestinians had been holding out.
At the other extreme is Austria and countries who argue that their national laws limits asylum rights to refugees -- a standard which Guantanamo detainees do not meet. Many of Washington's closest allies in Eastern Europe fall into this category, meaning their natural inclination to give the United States a hand could be blocked by their restrictive immigration laws.
EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said the bloc must proceed with extreme care in the matter.
"You know this is, of course, a question for EU member states individually, but at the same time we would like to see some sort of EU platform for a common response. This was a first discussion. This is a very sensitive and delicate measure and item," she said.
The matter was formally handed over to the bloc's justice and home affairs ministers, most of whom are likely to take a less permissive view than their colleagues in the foreign ministries.
In practical terms, this means two things. First, the EU will continue looking for a solution that is politically and legally satisfactory for all of its 27 member states. Second, states for whom repatriation poses no problem can start making their own quiet bilateral arrangements with Washington.
Britain Offers Lessons
Nine British citizens held at Guantanamo have already been brought back to the United Kingdom, along with four detainees who were British residents.
"The U.K. has some experience in this area," British Foreign Minister David Miliband said ahead of the Brussels meeting. "What I'll be saying to the meeting today is not just what the U.K. feels -- it has already made a significant contribution to the closure of Guantanamo, but we are keen to offer our experience of the repatriation of these people to other European countries who are ready to play their part."
Ireland has said it is willing to resettle some Guantanamo prisoners, the minister of justice, Dermot Ahern, was quoted as saying by the "Irish Times" on January 21. The paper says Amnesty International's Irish branch has urged the country in particular to take in Oybek Jabbarov, an Uzbek held at Guantanamo for more than seven years, and -- like some 50 detainees already cleared of charges -- unable to return home.
The German government is split. While Interior Minister Schauble is opposed to receiving Guantanamo prisoners, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, representing the coalition partner Social Democrats, is favorably disposed.
The EU's executive, the European Commission, backs a pan-European response, seeing in it, among other things, a chance to extend its own authority in the fields of asylum and immigration policy. European Commission Vice President Jacques Barrot, responsible for justice, freedom, and security, told the French daily "La Croix" on January 23 that the EU would be ready to act on a U.S. request to resettle Guantanamo inmates.
But Barrot also hinted that before offering the United States assistance on Guantanamo, the EU may ask Washington to disclose information regarding CIA "rendition flights" -- in which suspects were apprehended without judicial procedure and moved to another country for questioning -- as well as the secret prisons which allegedly operated in some EU member states.