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EU foreign ministers meeting dominated by crisis and conflict in the Middle East

16.02.2016 - Article

At Monday’s meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels, the agenda focused on the developments in Belarus and Moldova, as well as the conflicts in the Middle East.

At the meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday (15 February), the agenda focused on the developments in Belarus and Moldova, as well as the conflicts in the Middle East.

EU foreign ministers hold talks in Brussels
EU foreign ministers hold talks in Brussels© European Union

The foreign ministers of the EU member states started their February meeting this Monday with an in‑depth look at the situation in Belarus and in the Republic of Moldova.

Speaking about Belarus, Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier noted that the country had made some changes over the past months. It had, for example, released political prisoners, as called for by the European Union. “In return”, he said, the EU would lift sanctions against Belarus. Steinmeier hoped that this would pave the way for “more links in general, at political level, with Belarus”.

Belarus: EU foreign ministers lift numerous sanctions

At the same time, Steinmeier warned people not to get their hopes up too high. The sanctions were not being lifted, he said, in the naive belief that Belarus would totally change its spots overnight. But it was worth testing the waters in a situation like this to see how willing Belarus was to meet us halfway. Steinmeier said: “It would now be possible for the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) to have an office in Minsk once again. It would now be possible for the suspended human rights dialogues to be resumed again.” He also reported that the German Government was conducting negotiations to enable the German political foundations to work in Minsk again.

Steinmeier speaks to the press in Brussels
Steinmeier speaks to the press in Brussels© European Union

Further support for the Republic of Moldova should be linked to reform

Emerging from the EU Foreign Affairs Council, Steinmeier said that there had been an “unexpectedly detailed” and “very open” discussion of the developments in the Republic of Moldova. The foreign ministers agreed that the country should continue to receive European support. However, they also agreed that such support should be linked “even more clearly” than before to a revival of the reform process.

Syria: Reducing violence

Together with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Steinmeier briefed his EU counterparts about the outcome of last week’s talks on Syria in Munich.

Steinmeier cautioned against over-simplifying the situation in the war-torn country. The Syria conflict was “even more complex” than the conflicts in the second half of the 19th century. While the long shadow of the Cold War was a factor in the conflict, the crisis was however “dominated by Middle Eastern regional conflicts in which ethnic and religious interests played a role”.

Steinmeier called on all those involved to comply with the Munich commitments. These include a cessation of hostilities that should be implemented within one week, as well as an obligation to permit humanitarian access to besieged towns in Syria. “These commitments apply to everyone, they apply to Russia, and they also apply to Turkey,” as Steinmeier stressed. It was “bitter and frustrating” that yet more people had been killed in an attack on a hospital in northern Syria on Monday.

Steinmeier with his new French counterpart, Jean‑Marc Ayrault
Steinmeier with his new French counterpart, Jean‑Marc Ayrault© Federal Foreign Office

On Monday morning, Steinmeier had already urged all parties to the conflict to do their part to reduce the violence, even before a ceasefire came into effect. “This applies to the military operations being conducted by Russia and the Syrian regime in the Aleppo area and the latest attacks by (Kurdish) YPG militias in northern Syria.” He also noted that Turkey needed to show restraint as well in view of the tense situation.

Advocating European solutions to the refugee crisis

The refugee crisis was also a key topic on the sidelines of the Council. The Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil joined his EU counterparts for lunch and told them about the great efforts his country is making to deal with the refugee crisis.

Before the meeting, Steinmeier stated that it was very much in Germany’s interest for the burden to be shared more fairly across the EU, and that there was no point in seeking “the most basic” of solutions, none of which would work anyway. In this category he included the debate on closing borders. Steinmeier made it clear that forcing EU member states to leave Schengen was not an option. “We cannot redraw the borders of the European Union, either officially or unofficially.” Instead, Europe had to work together to tackle the refugee crisis and so manage to improve the “checking and registering” of those who make the journey to Europe. Much would depend on the attitude adopted by Turkey.

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