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Address by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Slovenia Dimitrij Rupel to the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) of the European Parliament - Briefing on the Conclusions of the Gymnich Meeting

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Mr Chairman, Distinguished Members of the European Parliament,

Allow me to present some of the salient points of the debate at the Informal Meeting of EU Foreign Ministers – Gymnich, held in Brdo and Bled, Slovenia, on 28 and 29 March. The meeting focused on the following issues: the role of Syria in the Middle East, relations between the EU and the Russian Federation, the European perspective for the Western Balkans, intercultural dialogue, and Tibet.

The Foreign Ministers confirmed four written contributions: the letter by Foreign Ministers Kouchner and Miliband on EU-Russian relations, the Presidency declaration on the Western Balkans and points for declarations on Tibet and on the Geert Wilders film.


The Middle East and the Role of Syria

The first topic discussed at the Gymnich meeting was the situation in the Middle East and the role of Syria.This is an opportune moment to discuss the Middle East Peace Process and Syria, there being a widespread impression that the Annapolis process is progressing slowly or has come to a standstill, that there is no change in the situation in the field, that Israel is continuing its unilateral action, and that the situation in Gaza is critical.

I provided my colleagues with the results and an assessment of my recent visit to the region where I had the opportunity to exchange views with the Egyptian President Mubarak and Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, the Arab League Secretary General Moussa, the Palestinian President Abbas, Prime Minister Fayyad and Foreign Minister Al-Malki, the Israeli President Peres, Prime Minister Olmert, Foreign Minister Livni, Mr Netanyahu, Mr Serry, and others. When assessing the negotiation process during the talks, scepticism prevailed on the part of the Arabs, and moderate optimism on the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

We also agreed that a definitive solution for the MEPP should also include Syria. We consequently agreed that Syria should not be isolated and that we should reflect on its involvement. Given that Syria had, in the past, taken advantage of international players, we decided to pay greater attention to coordinating the contacts of EU Member States and institutions with this country.

We were of the opinion that ‘bad behaviour' should not be rewarded.

Solidarity with Lebanon and the Siniora government is required.

The EU will continue to support the Annapolis process and hopes for a positive outcome of the Moscow conference.


EU-Russian Federation

Another significant item on the first day's agenda was the exchange of views on current developments in the Russian Federation and its relations with the EU, including in the context of preparations for the June Summit. The complexity of EU-Russian Federation relations in the spheres of politics, security, and energy was emphasised, as well as the fact that Russia is our largest neighbour and a key strategic partner. The June Summit provides us with the opportunity to enhance political dialogue at the highest level and to convey a united EU message to the new Russian leadership. Strategic partnership with Russia should be developed coherently, ensuring the unanimity and solidarity of the EU. Cooperation with Russia should also be intensified through joint ESDP missions and through resolving international issues in our common neighbourhood with a view to guaranteeing peace and security.

We also discussed the negotiation mandate for a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) between the EU and the Russian Federation. Most countries support the earliest possible approval of the negotiation mandate and launch of negotiations for the new framework agreement, i.e. before the end of the Slovenian Presidency.

Lithuania, too, expressed its support for the signature of a new PCA. At the Gymnich, Minister Vaitiekunas said that his country would be the first to benefit from well-managed relations between the EU and the Russian Federation. Owing to certain outstanding issues with Russia, they would like to extend the mandate of the new agreement to include: (1) decommissioning of the Druzhba pipeline and the Ignalina nuclear power plant (by the end of 2009 Lithuania will be completely dependent on the Russian Federation); (2) mention of the Lithuanian entrepreneur missing in Russia; (3) settlement of frozen conflicts in the common neighbourhood, and (4) an assurance that negotiations could be suspended at any time. Lithuania proposes that the Council Secretariat and the European Commission draw up an analysis of how to promote EU-Russian relations. The country also advocates relations with the Russian Federation at ministerial level.

The Presidency has also received a letter on this issue from the British and French Foreign Ministers, Miliband and Kouchner, stating that “Russia's foreign, security, economic and internal policies in a number of areas have given many of us cause for concern over recent years. Perhaps bolstered by her new-found wealth, Russia has been emboldened to question international commitments entered into since the 1990s. This assertiveness has made Russia a more difficult partner.We need to find the right collective response. [...] We should underline our welcome and support for President-elect Medvedev's stated agenda of promoting the rule of law in Russia. However, we should judge Russia by her actions, not just by her words, and the EU should be consistent in holding Russia to international commitments, including in the United Nations and Council of Europe, on the rule of law and human rights.”

The European Union must continue to prioritise the diversification of energy supply routes and sources. The new framework agreement will also include a chapter on energy, a particularly important aspect considering Russia's role in supplying energy products to the EU.

Relations with Russia need to be realistic. Issues which Russia introduces into relations with the EU often induce the Member States to assume different positions and generate tensions between them (frozen conflicts, positions on the Kosovo issue, and objections to Ukraine's and Georgia's participation in the NATO Membership Action Plan).

The EU Foreign Ministers expressed the hope that Russia would become a trustworthy and transparent partner, including through its membership of the World Trade Organization.

The Presidency will ensure, together with the Commission, that the European Parliament is fully informed regarding the progress achieved in the negotiations.


Western Balkans

I am particularly pleased that the EU Foreign Ministers at the Gymnich reiterated their support for a European future for the Western Balkans. All the Western Balkan countries were represented at the meeting, with Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremić and Kosovo's Prime Minister Thaçi attending, among others.

An overview of the situation in the Western Balkans shows that a great deal of progress has been achieved in recent years: increased stability, democratic reforms, economic growth, improved regional cooperation and progress in moving closer to the EU through the Stabilisation and Association Process. The Western Balkan countries now need to consolidate and build on these achievements by consistently fulfilling their commitments and the necessary conditions within the Stabilisation and Association Process.

In December 2007, the Council agreed that the Commission should draw up a communication on the Western Balkans which the Council would then discuss at the beginning of 2008.

People-to-people contacts between the Western Balkan countries and the EU should be promoted, particularly among the younger generation, thereby encouraging the region's citizens to internalise and cultivate European values. This applies above all to nationals of the former Yugoslav Federation who could, before 1990, travel throughout Europe without visas. In this regard, it should be mentioned that dialogues on visa liberalisation were launched with Serbia on 31 January, with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on 20 February, with Montenegro on 21 February, and with Albania on 7 March. On Saturday, the EU Foreign Ministers called for the earliest possible formulation of roadmaps defining realistic criteria for the introduction of a visa-free regime for the countries in the region.

The Ministers also discussed the possibility of free visas for the Western Balkan countries. This would be one component of the roadmaps.

We also discussed ways of strengthening regional cooperation and the economic development of the Western Balkans, both essential for increased stability in the region and its moving closer to the European Union. In this regard, the Commission Communication sets out a number of key areas and proposes new initiatives: e.g. in the fields of energy and transport (launching negotiations on a transport agreement), the Western Balkans Investment Framework, and stepping up cooperation between the Western Balkans and the EU in civil protection.

The establishment of the Regional Cooperation Council in Sofia on 27 February 2008 is a key achievement in the area of regional cooperation, signifying increased regional accountability.

The European Union is united in the view that a strong and active civil society is vital to speeding up the implementation of political and economic reforms, to reinforcing democracy and promoting reconciliation in the Western Balkans. The Gymnich therefore welcomed the establishment of the Civil Society Facility proposed by the Commission in its Communication.


Realisation of the European perspective for the Western Balkans

The region is highly specific in nature and needs special incentives, particularly in countries where the process of EU integration is coming up against a certain lack of political will and poor administrative capacity. The EU needs to be particularly determined and courageous in making its presence felt in the region. The Slovenian Presidency will strive to reaffirm and bring about the European perspective for the countries in the region.

We stressed at the Gymnich that considerable progress may be made in the accession negotiations if Croatia meets the benchmarks and other conditions contained in the March Communication from the European Commission.

Despite difficulties, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has set quite a positive example of a multi-ethnic society.It needs further support and corroboration to strengthen internal cohesion. We sincerely hope that Skopje will soon meet the benchmarks specified in the Accession Partnership. A positive assessment in the Commission's next annual report would allow a date for the beginning of accession negotiations to be fixed in 2008.

Montenegro and Albania have recently made considerable progress in meeting obligations under the Stabilisation and Association Agreements. This is an important incentive for the other countries in the region. In the Brdo Declaration, we called on both countries to expedite the implementation of the Interim Agreement and step up efforts to build institutional capacity, public administration and an independent judiciary, which is a prerequisite for upgrading existing relations with the EU.

As for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the implementation of the police reform remains a precondition for the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. We would like to stress, in this context, that Bosnia and Herzegovina's future within the EU is possible only as a unified, integrated and functioning multi-ethnic state.

Serbia is a key player in the region in both political and economic terms; it is currently facing strategic decisions regarding its future. Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations are essential for Serbia to move closer to the EU. In this respect, Serbia is capable of taking on the role of a driving force in the region.

In line with the December European Council conclusions, at the Gymnich meeting we reiterated that it was indeed possible to step up the pace of Serbia's moving closer to the EU and grant it a candidate status. This, however, largely depends on the will of the present political leadership as well as that of the next, which will be in power after the May election.

We underline that we wish to keep the EU perspective separate from the Kosovo issue. Any statements and/or acts endangering Kosovo's stability are unacceptable.

On this occasion, too, a great deal of attention was devoted to Kosovo. We pointed out that, like the whole region, Kosovo also has a clear future in the EU. The EU will continue to work closely with the UN, KFOR, the OSCE and other international actors with a view to bolstering stability. I wish to underline in this context that the full and effective deployment of EULEX and ICO throughout the territory of Kosovo will demonstrate our commitment to Kosovo's stability and the success of the CFSP as a whole. The continued UNMIK presence and the full implementation of its mandate in compliance with UNSCR 1244 throughout the territory of Kosovo is a key prerequisite for the stabilisation of the situation. In this connection, we consider it crucial for EU/EULEX/ICO to enter into political dialogue with the Kosovo Serbs. Kosovo's stability is critical for the stability of the entire region.


Intercultural Dialogue

Intercultural dialogue was the last topic dealt with at the Gymnich meeting. Our debate focused on the assessment of the latest developments in Tibet and attitudes to Islam, particularly in the light of the recently released film by the member of the Netherlands parliament, Geert Wilders.

We reiterated our concern about the recent developments in Tibet, condemned the violence and expressed solidarity with the victims. We called for the renunciation of violence, and expressed our expectation that the Chinese authorities would ensure transparency of information and give the media free access to Tibet. It was stressed that the Dalai Lama is striving for Tibet's autonomy and not its independence. In this context, we reiterated the demand to preserve the Tibetan language, culture, religion and traditions. We decided to pay special attention to the human rights situation in Tibet.

On the subject of attitudes to Islam, the recent film by the Netherlands MP Wilders concerning Islam was at the forefront of discussions. While we highlighted the principle of the right to free expression, we nonetheless pointed out that Islam cannot be identified with violence. The majority of Muslims reject extremism and violence. Indeed, members of the Islamic faith have also been among the victims of the extremism and violence. Freedom of speech, which remains one of the fundamental values of the EU, must, however, also respect the religions and beliefs of others.

Concern was also expressed, among other things, about the pending legal proceedings against the Turkish Justice and Development (AK) Party and its members. A ban on this Party would be the first case of a ban on a political party which had been largely supported by voters. It would also be counter to the opinion of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe.

Thank you for your attention.

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Date: 01.04.2008