BRUSSELS -- EU foreign ministers are gathered in Brussels for the bloc's first chance to extend a joint welcome to President Barack Obama's administration, with widespread hopes that the new U.S. president will consult them more on issues of mutual interest.
Most observers in the EU agree the bloc has a narrow window of opportunity to prove to Obama that it deserves to be taken seriously.
Yet EU member states were struggling in the run-up to the meeting to reach a common position on the fate of Guantanamo and its 245 prisoners, an issue that, more than most, symbolizes the hopes associated with Obama.
It was the only issue of such magnitude on which the EU might be able to find a common stance.
On other Obama priorities -- Afghanistan, the Middle East, or Iran -- the bloc's individual governments will likely be hamstrung by domestic pressure, diplomatic impotence, or commercial calculations.
In a move watched as much for its symbolism than its direct implications, participants quickly agreed to formally remove
the Iraq-based Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), also known as the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran, from the EU's list of terrorist organizations. A number of European courts had already ruled the EU ban illegal on the group, which has been accused of carrying out terrorist acts in Iran under the shah and after its falling-out with the Islamic leadership after the 1979 revolution and which is still banned by the United States.
Critics of the EU's MKO ban have long argued that it was supported by some member states in the hope of winning greater influence with Iran in talks on Tehran's nuclear ambitions.'Fresh Start'
The EU's current Czech presidency, in a January 22 declaration, acknowledged the symbolic significance of Obama's determination to close down Guantanamo. The declaration said the EU believes the decision has "great symbolic and practical significance, and could facilitate strengthening trans-Atlantic counterterrorism and security cooperation, based on the respect of international law and human rights."
"The Americans haven't given us an offer or required us to take anyone on board, but I'm sure we'll look at it very carefully," Finnish Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb said on his arrival for the meeting. "Now, I also think this is a political issue -- we need to shake hands with the United States. It's a new, fresh start. Guantanamo has been [ordered] closed, and we are very pleased with that."
Portugal, backed by Spain, forced the Guantanamo issue onto the agenda for the Brussels meeting. Both countries believe the EU must make a collective gesture, and offer to resettle those prisoners who cannot be tried in the United States and want to leave but cannot return to their countries of origin for fear of reprisals.
At one level, the issue has become a well-rehearsed squabble of jurisdiction. A proposal has emerged that envisions the EU accepting up to 60 former detainees. But despite attempts at EU-wide harmonization, asylum policy remains a national matter. For some, like Germany's Christian Democrat minister of the interior, Wolfgang Schauble, safeguarding national prerogatives is a matter of principle.
Schauble has said Germany would only have agreed to accept prisoners if there had been any of German origin. But generally, he says, the Guantanamo detainees are the United States' problem to deal with.An 'American Problem'
That is a sentiment echoed before the January 26 meeting by EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. "This is an American problem that they have to solve, but we will be ready to help if necessary," Solana said.
Other countries, like Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands, decline for ideological reasons, saying accepting Guantanamo prisoners would legitimate the more dubious detention and interrogation practices of the U.S. "war on terror."
Some EU countries say accepting Guantanamo detainees would legitimate dubious U.S. practices.
They stress that the Guantanamo camp was set up in violation of international law and remains a U.S. responsibility. "We did not set up or support Guantanamo Bay. We did not make these mistakes," the Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, told the country's parliament two months ago.
Still others fear the potential security risks the terrorist suspects may pose once they are released. Some EU countries argue their legislation limits asylum rights to refugees -- a status for which Guantanamo inmates do not qualify. Many of Washington's close allies in Eastern Europe fall into this category, meaning their natural inclination to give the United States a hand could be undone by their restrictive immigration laws.
The governments of France and Britain appear prepared, in principle, to host people freed from Guantanamo, but have argued for a joint European response that would leave member states free to make their own individual decisions.
Nine British citizens held at Guantanamo have already been brought back to the United Kingdom, along with four inmates 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 particularly urges the country 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.Ready For U.S. Request?
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 warned there would be conditions attached to any positive EU response. He said the EU will want "all the data" on everyone suggested for repatriation in Europe. For example, Washington would need to show if the inmates had been tried fairly, and whether their presence in Europe would involve security risks. "Even with the greatest generosity, we cannot improvise," Barrot said.
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.
Diplomats in Brussels predicted that EU foreign ministers were likely to play for time in Brussels, welcoming once again Guantanamo's impending closure without entering a binding collective commitment to resettle any of its inmates.
Commission Vice President Barrot said he expected to discuss the issue in depth with U.S. authorities during an EU visit to Washington in mid-March.Other Business
The EU foreign ministers were also expected to discuss the Middle East and the aftermath of the Israeli campaign in Gaza. The ministers, meeting on January 25 with their Arab counterparts in Brussels, called for the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, to unite in order to negotiate a lasting peace with Israel and to allow the reopening of border crossings for humanitarian aid.
The EU foreign ministers were also likely to discuss the bloc's relations with Russia and Ukraine in the wake of the recent natural-gas crisis. Diplomats say both countries' reputations have suffered greatly as a result of the gas outages that affected much of the EU this month.
The EU's disappointment is said to be particularly acute with Ukraine, whose reformist government failed to live up to the bloc's expectations, according to critics.