24th Oct 2016


This WEEK in the European Union

  • Putin: Russia's hardman PM will be in Brussels next week, amid an agenda dominated by democracy and human rights in north Africa (Photo: NATO)

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Sunday (20 February) evening and Monday aim to pledge support for grassroots north African revolutions, as the bloc scrambles to come up with a co-ordinated response to events.

The ministers' draft conclusions say the EU will offer "support to democratic transition in the wider region that comes from within," according to German press agency DPA. The draft paper also speaks of new EU "support packages" and "adequate means to contribute to the most urgent needs for socio-economic development" in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, but gives no figures.

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Amid escalating violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen going into the weekend, ministers might be confronted with entirely new problems by the time they sit down to dinner on Sunday. "No one could have predicted what is happening," one diplomatic contact said.

Zooming in on details, ministers are likely to debate how to handle the exodus of north African refugees to Europe ahead of talks on the subject at EU-leader-level in March. EU efforts to freeze the financial assets of the ousted Egyptian and Tunisian dictators will also come up.

In other business, the UK is to propose further toughening of economic sanctions against Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons programme. And Poland is to call for extra measures against Belarus after it jailed a young protester for four years.

For her part, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton will visit Egypt on Monday.

On Wednesday, she will host an international conference in Brussels with senior officials from Maghreb and Middle East countries, the US, Japan and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, to frame a multilateral masterplan for the region.

Following the EU ministers' high-minded pro-democracy declaration on Monday, EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso will host the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, in the EU capital on Wednesday.

The atmosphere in Brussels will change on Thursday however, when Russia's hardman prime minister and likely next president brings his full suite of ministers to spend two days in meetings with Mr Barroso and his team.

The regular, once-every-two-years event comes shortly after Russia sentenced oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky to stay in jail until 2017 in a case seen as proof of Mr Putin's contempt for the rule of law.

The Liberal group in the European Parliament last week called for EU countries to consider imposing sanctions on Russia. And EU ministers in January discussed whether or not to prune back the multitude of content-lite EU-Russia meetings each year, including the option of dropping one of the two annual EU-Russia summits.

Ms Ashton will on Wednesday in Brussels also meet a controversial figure - Cuban foreign minister Bruno Parilla. Spain last year urged the EU to normalise relations with the Havana regime, but the death of a prominent hunger striker put paid to the idea.

The week will end with a likely drubbing for the incumbent centre-right Fianna Fail party in Irish general elections on Friday.

Electoral campaigning has been dominated by Dublin's recent €85 billion EU-IMF loan - the final humiliation for a government that was once seen as a posterchild of EU success.

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