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Syria's civil war high on foreign ministers' agenda

By Andrew Gardner  -  14.02.2013 / 05:57 CET
Zimbabwe and Eastern partnership will also be discussed.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Syria, will visit Brussels on Monday (18 February) to discuss his efforts to broker an agreement to end Syria's civil war. 

His presentation – and his assessment of an offer of talks extended by the Syria opposition that has drawn a tentatively positive response from the Syrian government – is likely to form the centrepiece of the meeting of foreign ministers from the European Union's 27 member states. Beyond that political debate looms the issue of the EU's arms embargo, which will expire on 1 March unless it is renewed. Officials have voiced incredulity at the confusion on display at the last ministerial meeting, on 31 January, over what forms of non-lethal military support can be offered to the Syrian rebels under the current sanctions regime. National officials are currently drawing up a range of options for ministers to consider. An agreement would require unanimous support, and many foreign ministers are said to be nervous about risks posed by a change to the embargo. France's President François Hollande said at the end of the EU's summit on Friday (8 February) that “the embargo can be lifted only if we consider that there is no chance of a political dialogue”.

Another prominent concern on foreign ministers' agenda in recent meetings – the security, political and humanitarian crises in Mali – will also be discussed. Development ministers decided on Tuesday (12 February) to unfreeze €250m of EU development aid suspended because of a military coup last March. The focus of foreign ministers' attention will therefore be on the EU's military training mission, which has been agreed but not formally launched. The 450-member mission – including 200 trainers – is due in the field by mid-March. The composition of the mission has yet to be finalised.

There will also be a decision to renew sanctions against Zimbabwe, though officials are still discussing whether the blacklist should be shortened so as to encourage the country's ruling elite to ensure free and fair conduct of a constitutional referendum scheduled for late March and presidential elections in mid-year.

The most controversial issue is Belgium's proposal to de-list a diamond mining company. A common position is likely to be reached before the meeting, without the need for referral to ministers.

The agenda also includes discussion of the Middle East peace process in the wake of Israel's elections on 22 January. The country's politicians are still struggling to form a government, but several former senior Israeli officials will be in Brussels next week to discuss – outside the foreign-affairs council – alternative approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, tapping into a groundswell of opinion among European diplomats that the EU, together with the United States, should find new ways to bring the Palestinian and Israeli leaders back to the negotiating table.

Štefan Füle, the European commissioner, will attend the ministers' meeting to discuss two areas in his portfolio: the southern neighbourhood, including Syria, and the EU's Eastern Partnership with six post-Soviet states. A statement on the EU's ambitions for the Eastern Partnership summit in November is expected.

In their debate, ministers are likely to touch on the EU's summit with Ukraine on 25 February and the current political unrest in Georgia (see page 15). Füle met foreign ministers from the Eastern Partnership countries in Georgia this week (11-12 February), and secured pledges from Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili that they would try to calm the political situation.
© 2014 European Voice. All rights reserved.

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