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EU Ministers Weigh Strategic Partnerships

EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton (bottom, center) poses for a family photo with European Union foreign affairs ministers on the first day of an informal meeting at the Egmont Palace in Brussels on September 1
BRUSSELS -- EU foreign ministers have adjourned after spending much of a two-day, informal meeting in Brussels debating the principles underlying the bloc's choice of strategic partners.

Alongside China, India, and Brazil, diplomats say the meeting also focused strongly on Turkey, reflecting the EU's increasing concerns in its own neighborhood.

The ministers also discussed Serbia's future and relief efforts to flood-stricken Pakistan.

The discussions on strategic partnerships reflect a desire within the bloc to get its common foreign policy off to a new start in the wake of the adoption of the constitutional Lisbon Treaty in December.

Speaking at the end of the meeting, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said all partnerships were being reviewed. The process, she added, will continue next week at a summit meeting of EU leaders in the EU capital.

"[The ministers discussed] our relationships with strategic partners -- those big economic and political relationships that have the potential to change our lives, one way or the other, and how we take those forward," Ashton said. "So, a chance for ministers to begin a debate that will continue at the European Council [summit on September 16] with heads of government that will enable us to think about our relationships with the main countries that we call our strategic partners."

Formally, China, India, and Brazil were intended to serve as examples of the EU's strategic partnerships, but diplomats said much of the debate in fact focused on the underlying principles which guide the choice of strategic partners.

While Ashton and most continental Western European governments favor a pragmatic approach to the choice of partners, emphasizing shared interests, other capitals appear to put greater stress on shared values and actual prospects of meaningful cooperation.

Global Goals

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet observed after the meeting that "strictly speaking, in this sense the EU only has two strategic partners: the United States and Turkey."

Ashton also highlighted Turkey's potential role after the meeting, noting that the EU's own neighborhood will eventually be seen by the rest of the world as the touchstone of the bloc's ability to pursue global goals.

"Turkey is an important candidate, it's an important partner in some of the areas that we're involved in [in the world]," Ashton said. "If we think about Bosnia, one can see the influence and value, of course, in having our connections and our partnership with Turkey."

Relations with Iran, for instance, are increasingly regarded as a crisis with potentially global repercussions in which Turkey's role could prove crucial.

On September 8, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague and Finnish counterpart Alexander Stubb published a joint article in the "Financial Times" suggesting the EU should include Turkey in some of its foreign policy deliberations.

Diplomats warn, however, that many in the EU are skeptical about making concessions to Turkey before it normalizes its relations with member states Cyprus and Greece and meets EU conditions in the accession process.

The Kosovo Question

Ashton said the meeting also touched on relations with Serbia.

She said the EU had shown itself "at its best" in getting Serbia to tone down a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on Kosovo last week. Although Serbia has said it will not recognize Kosovo, Belgrade dropped initial plans to seek outright UN condemnation of the 2008 declaration of independence of its erstwhile province -- a move which would have put Serbia on a collision course with most of the EU's larger powers and the United States.

Ashton said the EU now wants Belgrade and Pristina to launch direct talks.

"What we want to see next is the beginning of dialogue," Ashton said. "It's for the two parties, for Serbia and Kosovo, to decide who and how and when. I have offered that we will be very happy to facilitate those talks, to host them here, but it's for the parties to do it."

EU officials say possible talks between Belgrade and Pristina would steer clear of controversial issues such as Kosovo's future status and focus on practical cooperation on issues such as energy provisions, infrastructure, and economic development.

Ashton is expected to ask EU governments in October to ratify the Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia. But the protracted coalition talks in the Netherlands -- traditionally a staunch opponent of concessions to Serbia -- could delay the process.

EU sources say most governments in the bloc agree the EU must quickly reward Serbia for its "exemplary cooperation" last week which has put the government in Belgrade under considerable domestic pressure.

In Brussels, the ministers also discussed ways of providing economic assistance to Pakistan in the wake of last month's devastating floods. Among other measures, Ashton said the EU was looking at "practical and quick measures" to lift tariffs on Pakistani import goods.