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EU Foreign Ministers To Discuss Georgia, Iran, Iceland

Freshly returned from a visit to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt will lead the meeting.
BRUSSELS -- EU foreign ministers are convening in Brussels for their first monthly meeting under the Swedish presidency. Sweden took over from the Czech Republic on July 1 for six months.

With Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt freshly returned from a four-day trip to the South Caucasus, Georgia is expected to top the agenda.

Diplomats say EU member states have reached agreement to extend the mandate of the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia until September 2010. A statement is expected to that effect.

The declaration is also likely to reiterate EU concerns that Russia and the separatist de facto authorities in the two breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continue denying entry to EUMM observers.

This constitutes a breach of an agreement reached with Russia in the wake of the war in Georgia last August, which stipulates international monitors must have access to the entire conflict zone.

U.S. Involvement

The EU ministers are also likely to broach Georgian requests -- made to both the delegation led by Bildt and to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visiting Tbilisi last week -- for the EUMM to include U.S. officials. Sources in Brussels say EU member states are likely to seriously consider the issue in September.

Those sources indicate most member states' initial reactions have so far been relatively positive. Concerns, when they have been expressed, have mostly come from non-NATO neutrals within the EU -- Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and Austria. Some member states are also said to harbor misgivings about the possible impact of extending EUMM on EU-Russian relations.

U.S. participation in the EUMM would also raise a number of potentially complicated technical issues, such as the level of U.S. representation in its command. Also, the door would be thrown open for other third countries, leading among them Turkey, which has already implied interest.

Meanwhile, Bildt is likely to echo worries expressed by EU officials on the ground that risks for EUMM personnel have escalated significantly in the wake of the June 21 attack in which a local employee was killed in a land-mine explosion.

The type of mine used is said to be in common use in both Russia and Georgia. Russia has denied involvement, Abkhaz authorities have ignored EU requests for information, and Georgia is said to have shown less than ardent interest in investigating the event.

The incident is seen by EU representatives as a premeditated attack on the EUMM, and tensions in the region are expected to rise as the first anniversary of last year's war draws nearer. EUMM observers have been instructed to use armored cars whenever traveling within 4 kilometers of the Abkhaz or South Ossetian demarcation lines.

Solidarity on Iran

Iran continues to feature highly on the EU's list of global concerns. Officials in Brussels say the ministers will issue a statement expressing solidarity with those member states whose nationals or employees have been detained by Iranian authorities in the wake of last month's violently disputed elections. Behind-the-scenes EU pressure has led to the freeing of all nine of the British Embassy's local employees who were initially arrested for inciting unrest.

One French citizen, however, remains in Iranian custody. The EU is expected to call for her immediate release.

The statement will also reiterate EU concerns about the country's nuclear program. Officials say that no clear policy has emerged as yet within the bloc as to how to interact with Iran's leadership in what is seen as a "new context."

EU member states, meanwhile, continue applying de facto visa restrictions on Iran. Member states have stopped issuing visas to Iranian officials carrying diplomatic or service passports.

Iceland Membership

The ministers will also hold a first debate on Iceland's application to join the EU. The application, which was widely anticipated, was made last week. Iceland's small and open economy, excessively dependent on the banking sector, was one of the first to succumb to the global financial crisis and the country is now looking for a safe haven.

EU officials say that given that the country has been a full participant in the bloc's internal market since 1994, negotiations will be relatively easy. Internal-market dossiers account for about 70 percent of the material covered during EU entry talks.

Assuming no major hiccups, the small country with its 313,000 inhabitants could accede to the EU in 2012. Reykjavik's ambition to join the EU's euro currency, is, however, unlikely to materialize equally quickly. As a result of the global crisis, the country's budget deficit and loan burden far exceed the permitted limits.

However, there are three potential obstacles. First, France has repeatedly said no new countries can join the EU before the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. Ireland will hold a repeat referendum in early October. The Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany have also so far failed to fully endorse the bloc's new constitutional treaty.

Second is the dependence of the Icelandic economy on fishing and related exports. EU membership would oblige the country to throw open its waters to all EU comers -- something that will not be easy for a country that in the 1970s waged highly charged "fishing wars" against Britain.

Secondly, Britain and the Netherlands, where the sudden collapse of Icelandic banks left hundreds of thousands of local savers out of pocket, want Reykjavik to cover their losses. Iceland has promised to oblige, but appears to lack the funds.

The presumed fast-track treatment awaiting the Nordic nation has raised hackles in the western Balkans. Above all, Albania, having applied last year, is still awaiting an EU response.

One European Commission official said on July 24 such comparisons were misleading as "every country will be treated on its own merits." Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt wrote in a blog entry titled "Welcome, Island" on July 22 that as a "member of the EU's internal market and the Schengen area, Iceland is in a category which lies significantly ahead of countries which do not participate in these forms of European cooperation."

Belarus On Hold

After the foreign ministers' meeting, Bildt will also chair "troika"-format talks with Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau. The EU, which earlier this year extended the suspension of a visa ban on more than 40 top Belarusian decision makers, believes, however, that Minsk is dragging its feet over promises to carry out political and economic reforms.

In particular, the EU wants Belarus to hold free elections, give civil society a free rein, and free independent media from restraints. But officials say Belarus's precarious balancing act between the EU and Russia -- which President Alyaksandr Lukashenka recently described as the "two monsters" -- has convinced most member states the time is not right for the EU to put more pressure on the country.

Belarus has demonstrated a certain degree of willingness in recent months to stand up to Moscow. It refused to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and last week shut down a Russian oil pipeline to Latvia. Most of Russia's oil exports cross Belarus.

Russia had earlier this month gone back on a promise to hand over a $500 million tranche of a loan negotiated last year, citing dwindling currency reserves and Minsk's outstanding natural-gas debt.

Belarus is looking to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help, but as the German paper "Handelsblatt" noted on July 24, the $3.5 billion the IMF has in reserve for Minsk would stabilize its currency but will not suffice to pay its energy debts to Moscow.