European Union foreign ministers meet in Brussels today. Their monthly meeting will this time focus on the nuclear deal three EU member states struck with Iran, the situation in the Middle East after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and relations with China. A discussion on Belarus is also expected, as are first reactions to the second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine. RFE/RL takes a look at the ministers' agenda.
Brussels, 22 November 2004 (RFE/RL) - Perhaps the most momentous issue facing the ministers is Iran.
Britain, France, and Germany announced last week they had struck a deal with Iran under which the country will suspend its uranium-enrichment activities.
The three foreign ministers were expected to brief their EU colleagues on details of the deal today. The EU as a whole is expected to adopt a statement welcoming the agreement as a "step in the right direction."
Officials say the next step will be the verification of the suspension of enrichment programs. Once verification has taken place, the European Commission will start preparations for the resumption of the trade and cooperation talks suspended in June 2003.
An EU diplomat said on 19 November that a date for the resumption of those talks has not been set yet. The official said the talks would continue from where they were left off in 2003. Parallel political talks will also resume.
A separate, unlinked EU-Iran human rights dialogue has continued largely uninterrupted despite the suspension of the trade and political talks.
The EU ministers will also look at the shape of a longer-term agreement with Iran. Negotiations to that effect -- which should also authoritatively fix the terms of the Iranian enrichment suspension -- are expected to begin in mid-December. Diplomats say the EU assumes the suspension will be indefinite, although Iran has not confirmed this.
Officials say there has been some controversy among EU ambassadors over the wording of a joint declaration marking the death of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat. The final text was to be agreed today. The text was expected to offer sympathy to the Palestinian people, condemn the use of violence and support a recent initiative by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana to proceed with concrete short-term measures in the absence of broader movement in the peace process.
One EU official said, however, that the bloc is also likely to welcome recent indications from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he is willing to consult with Palestinian authorities over the planned withdrawal from Gaza. This has been a key EU demand since early in 2003.
The official said the EU is "keen to seize the new window of opportunity."
The EU diplomat said the immediate priority is to see elections conducted in Palestine to find a replacement for Arafat. The diplomat said the new leadership needs to be seen as legitimate and credible.
The official said the EU has already given substantial support to preparations for the elections, owing to the fact that the presidential elections were originally due to be held in January 2003. The official said the EU had been "well prepared" for the polls then, and regretted they could not be held. EU financial support has been maintained since, and experts have remained on the ground giving technical and logistical advice.
The EU has so far spent about 6 million euros (7.8 million) on the elections, with 12 million euros being available in total. Officials say the most important aspect in preparations is voter registration.
The EU is also appealing to other donors to live up to their promises. One EU source said the bloc was especially keen to see undertakings from the Arab world come to fruition, "We would like to see these honored."
Officials said it is possible the international "Quartet" supporting peace in the Middle East might meet on the sidelines of the Sharm el-Sheikh conference for Iraq this week.
The ministers will discuss preparations for the EU-China summit on 8 December. A number of new agreements are expected to be signed. One official described the relationship as "very dynamic," with both the EU and China acknowledging each other as strategic partners.
However, the official said due to long-standing concerns regarding the human rights situation in China, the EU is unlikely to drop its arms embargo in advance of the summit.
The official said the EU recognizes the situation "has clearly moved on from Tiananmen," referring to the crackdown on pro-democracy students in 1989 that prompted the embargo. But the diplomat added that some questions remain unanswered. The EU wants China to ratify the international convention on civil and political rights. Although the link between human rights and the arms embargo is said to be "not direct," officials in Brussels said progress on human rights would "help present the lifting of the arms embargo to the European public."
Officials also say the lifting of the embargo will have to wait until a functioning, if voluntary, EU "code of conduct" for arms sales has been put in place.
The ministers will continue their discussions from October's meeting assessing the aftermath of a recent referendum in Belarus. The EU has said the vote -- which would allow President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to seek another term in office -- did not reach European standards of democracy.
One official said the EU is looking for ways to convey criticism without giving the "people of Belarus reason to feel we're isolating them or shutting them out."
Belarus is a potential beneficiary of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy. The EU has long said it would be prepared to deepen links with the country if steps toward democracy and the rule of law were taken. One official on 19 November noted that "at present time this is not possible to envisage."
The bloc would like to foster contacts with civil society in Belarus but appears to be short on ideas. Hence, the European Commission will be asked today to set up a working group next year involving member states and nongovernmental organizations to produce new ideas.
The EU ministers are also likely to extend the visa ban currently in place against a small group of officials implicated in the disappearances of opposition politicians a few years ago. The ban is also likely to include officials responsible for the way the October elections were held and the human rights violations that have taken place since.
One official told RFE/RL that although the bans would be announced today, the names involved would be made public in two weeks' time.
The ministers will hold their first discussions of the second round of the presidential elections in Ukraine held yesterday. One official said the ministers are unlikely to have a "clear picture" by this morning.
Their discussions will take place against a complex backdrop. The EU has endorsed international criticism of serious irregularities in the first round of the polls, where officials favored one party and access to the media was biased.
On the other hand, officials in Brussels praise what they say have been "genuinely competitive" elections.
One official said on 19 November that the "door remains open to closer [EU] cooperation with Ukraine -- whoever wins. " The official said the neighborhood-policy action plan about to be unveiled shortly is unlikely to be adjusted depending on results. But, the official added, it is equally true, that how far relations go with Ukraine will depend on the readiness of the new authorities to embrace western values.
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