The agenda of the monthly EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels today is topped by discussions on the pre-electoral situation in Belarus, the future of Afghanistan, the nuclear standoff with Iran, and the EU's future ties with Iraq.
BRUSSELS, 30 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The EU foreign ministers' debate on Belarus will be accompanied by an appearance at the meeting by the joint opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich.
Milinkevich will also meet today with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and European Parliament President Josep Borrell.
Free And Fair Poll
An EU diplomat who asked not to be named said on 27 January that Milinkevich's high-level reception is "not unusual" for the EU. The official said the EU regularly meets opposition representatives from other countries, but said that does not mean the EU endorses them personally. "We don't back political parties; we back principles," noted the diplomat.
European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin told RFE/RL on 27 January that the foreign ministers' discussion of Belarus will be held in the context of grave concerns about the situation in the country.
"The EU remains deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Belarus as regards democracy, political freedoms, and respect for human rights," Udwin said. "We're watching the run-up to the [19 March presidential] election very, very closely, and as we have said at the end of the last year the EU has not ruled out taking further restrictive measures if international standards are not upheld."
In November, EU foreign ministers threatened to take unspecified "restrictive measures" against Belarus if President Alyaksandr Lukashenka does not ensure the March polls are free and fair.
The EU ministers are expected to adopt a statement today that will reiterate the threat.
For a few years now, the EU has enforced a travel ban on a number of leading Belarusian officials who are held to be personally responsible for repressive measures against specific opposition figures and pro-democracy protesters.
EU member states also keep to a minimum bilateral political contacts with the Belarusian regime, leaving them to the rotating presidency and Solana's office.
Udwin on 27 January highlighted one rare bit of "good news," however.
"In the meantime there has been one piece of good news, which is that the Belarusian authorities have agreed to allow an OSCE observer mission to operate," Udwin said. "That is something we welcome very much; it's something we've pushed for. And what we now want to be certain [of] is that mission will be allowed to do its work without being impeded and that all eligible candidates are allowed to register, are allowed to campaign, that reporters are allowed to operate freely. These are things we'll be watching very closely."
Today's EU statement is also likely to note that should the Belarusian authorities show goodwill and allow free and democratic elections to take place, then the EU would seek to improve relations with the country.
Officials on 27 January said "some member states" -- widely believed to be headed by Poland -- will argue for travel facilitation for Belarusian citizens. However, officials in Brussels said that while improving contacts with the Belarusian society is an important objective, the EU cannot offer easier visa rules to Belarus while it denies them to countries with which it is on much better terms.
One official said the European Commission today will "remind" member states that under current common visa rules they can already do more. For example, they may waive or reduce visa fees.
Compact With Afghanistan
The EU foreign ministers' discussions about Afghanistan will take place on the eve of a major two-day development conference for the country in London.
The purpose of the London conference is to launch a new agreement between the international community and Afghanistan -- dubbed the Compact for Afghanistan -- to replace the now expired framework put into place after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 in Bonn.
European Commission spokeswoman Udwin told RFE/RL on 27 January that the London conference is an opportunity for Afghanistan's international supporters to demonstrate that their commitment to the country remains in place "for the long haul."
"In a compact between Afghanistan and the donors some new agreements and objectives will be set out that will guide our work together over the coming years and demonstrate that this was not a flash in the pan, it was not just a reaction to the fall of the Taliban, but that the international community really does wants to accompany Afghanistan on what may be a rather lengthy road, but a very important road to stability and to democratization and greater prosperity," Udwin said.
EU officials say the compact will identify three critical areas for Afghanistan's development until 2010 -- security, governance, and economic and social development.
There will also be an EU statement today underlining the importance of combating the drugs trade.
Showing Kabul The Money
Officials in Brussels say no new EU pledges will be announced at the London meeting. The EU intends to remain one of Afghanistan's main donors. However, in 2001 it made a five-year pledge for a total of 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion), which will come to completion at the end of this year.
Figures for a new pledge will not become clear before the EU put the final touches on its 2007-13 budget. The long-term budget was agreed by member states in December, but the European Parliament has so far withheld its crucial approval.
An EU diplomat said in Brussels on 27 January that Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot is likely to brief his EU colleagues about the difficult ongoing debate in the country about a possible large-scale deployment of troops to southern Afghanistan.
A decision on the possible deployment, which is a key part of the expansion of the NATO-led ISAF stabilization force in Afghanistan, is expected on 2 February.
Although the EU does not directly participate in these decisions, the ministers are expected to discuss briefly if money from the joint EU budget could be used to finance the work of the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan. The European Commission - which manages the EU budget -- is said by officials to be "very sympathetic" to the idea, but must be reassured that EU money would only be used for civilian purposes.
Talking About Tehran
The EU ministers' discussion will precede a meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 2-3 February. Another important forthcoming meeting will take place later on 30 January in London between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. In effect, this will bring together the Security Council and the three EU countries that are attempting to negotiate the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
An EU statement is expected today, saying the EU remains "gravely concerned" by Iran's decision to remove the seals from its nuclear equipment and begin uranium-enrichment-related work.
The EU will say that it continues to believe the issue could be resolved by negotiations, but that that would require a "cooperative and transparent approach" on the part of the Iranian government.
The EU backs UN Security Council involvement in the issue, although it wants the IAEA to retain primary responsibility for the issue.
The EU considers Iran to be in breach of the so-called Paris agreement signed in November 2004, under which Iran voluntarily suspended all uranium-enrichment-related activities for the duration of talks with the EU-3.
Other Outstanding Issues
The EU ministers will have their first chance to discuss Iraq since the publication of the election results last week. Officials say the EU is keen to launch negotiations for a trade and cooperation agreement as soon as the new government is in place.
An EU statement expected today will encourage the swift formation of the new government, which the EU urges to be "representative and inclusive" and open to all political forces committed to peace.
The ministers will also have their first opportunity to jointly weigh the implications of the victory of Hamas in the 25 January Palestinian elections.
EU officials say the onus is on Hamas to show how it will respond to its responsibilities in government. The EU has said it will work with everyone who pursues peace by peaceful means.
EU officials also underline that it considers two issues to be important considerations: that Hamas recognize Israel's right to exist, and that Hamas disarm. However, officials last week indicated it is likely the EU will continue its funding to Palestine, which last year totaled 280 million euros ($339 million).
Hamas is on the EU terrorist list, but one official noted on 27 January the impact of that fact is "political, not legal" - that is, that the EU is not legally prevented from having dealings from the organization.
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