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17th Nov 2018

Benelux countries urge EU unity on Syria

  • Rutte (l): 'Europe can only play a strong and effective role if it acts as one' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands have issued a plea for the EU to stop infighting on Syria.

The Benelux countries in a joint statement on Friday (15 March) said: "We must stay united if we want to convince Russia and others of the need to negotiate."

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They noted: "We ask member states to work within the framework of the common European foreign policy. We understand the arguments of those that want to modify the [EU arms] embargo, but we also want to take into account the risk of proliferation in Syria."

Dutch PM Mark Rutte added in personal remarks to press the same day: "Europe can only play a strong and effective role if it acts as one."

The debate on whether to give weapons to the opposition ignited earlier this week when first the UK, then France threatened to tear up a joint EU ban put in place some two years ago.

The hawks have the upper hand, because unless there is a consensus to renew it, the sanctions law will automatically lapse on 31 May.

But the sanctions cover lots more than just arms - if the measures fall, the Syrian regime will be able to travel once again to EU countries and to resume oil sales to European firms.

For his part, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy said following a regular EU summit in Brussels on Friday that foreign ministers will put Syria as "point number one on their agenda" when they hold an informal meeting in Dublin next week.

He added it is "normal" that member states have different points of view.

"I remember Libya - we also started with nuances, and at some moments more than nuances, on how to act, but in the end we had a common position," he said.

The brusqueness of the British and French statements - both countries asserted the right to conduct an "independent foreign policy" as sovereign states - went beyond nuance.

But Germany, until recently the main opponent of lifting the embargo, has signalled it is willing to talk.

For its part, Austria took on Germany's old role on Friday.

"We are against the lifting of the arms embargo. We think that offers no solution," Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann told press in the EU capital.

"One can never rule out whose hands more weapons will end up in, and that's why I am against this suggestion," Austrian defence minister Gerald Klug told national broadcaster ORF.

Finnish PM Jyrki Katainen also said he wants to keep the ban.

Meanwhile, differences of opinion exist even within the Benelux camp, despite its joint communique.

A Belgian diplomat told this website his country is more sympathetic to arming the rebels than the joint statement suggests.

"We want to avoid a situation in which European arms end up in the hands of extremists. We need some controls. But we also want to avoid a situation in which the secularist or moderate forces in the opposition are the only ones without a supply of weapons," the contact noted.

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