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Europe

ECB, Syria top foreign minister's meeting

At an informal meeting in Cyprus, EU foreign ministers agreed to sharpen sanctions against Syria, while upping their humanitarian aid to refugees. The ECB's bond-buying scheme was also in focus during the talks.

"Here you can see the faces behind refugee figures. These are personal stories, not numbers," said Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle after his visit in the refugee camp Zaatari near the border between Syria and Jordan.

A Syrian refugee woman hangs her families clothes to dry at Zaatari Refugee Camp, in Mafraq, Jordan, Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012. (AP photo/Mohammad Hannon)

The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan houses SYrian refugees

Zaatari was the first stop for Westerwelle on a two-day Middle East visit that he embarked upon after leaving Cyprus, where he took part in a regular, but informal meeting of EU's foreign ministers dubbed Gymnich.

There Westerwelle announced that Germany plans to increase its existing aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan from 22 million euros (28 million dollars) to 24 million. The German contribution will help make the Zaatari camp fit for the winter over the next few weeks. "Unfortunately, we have to be prepared that the conflict could last for weeks or even months to come," the foreign minister said.

The UN's refugee agency UNHCR is planning to expand the camp's capacity to fit some 80,000 people, up from today's 30,000. Syria's neighboring countries Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are faced with an estimated 200,000 refugees from Syria. The real number may be considerably higher.

Fresh sanctions against Syria

The Syrian coast is little more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Cyprus, and the second day of talks at the meeting of the EU's foreign ministers in Paphos was dominated by the Syrian crisis. Ministers agreed to tighten sanctions on Syria, despite criticism from Russia. EU foreign policy coordinator Catherine Ashton was tasked to work out the details of the eighteenth round of restrictive measures by October.

Cyprus' foreign minister Erato Kozakou Marcoullis, left, and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton speak to the media before the informal EU Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in Kouklia outside of Paphos coastal city, southwest of the island of Cyprus,Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. The European Union said Friday that it will provide an additional euro 60 million (US dlrs 76 million) in humanitarian aid to Syria as the number of people needing assistance topped 2.5 million. Ashton say that the EU continues to be “extremely worried and concerned” over the suffering of Syrians fleeing the conflict that has claimed thousands of lives.(Foto:Petros Karadjias/AP/dapd)

Cyprus is represented by Foreign Minister Marcoullis

The EU's sanctions have shown so far failed to stop the violence in Syria. Russia has blocked all attempts to pass a resolution in the United Nations Security Council that would allow for more drastic measures. There was no progress in talks with Russia, "not even on the humanitarian level," lamented Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi.

In the meantime, the EU is focusing its efforts on humanitarian aid, but also on strengthening the opponents of President Assad in Syria. Ashton urged Syrian opposition groups to collaborate. "It's important that the people, whoever they are, feel they are part of that future," she said.

On Friday, the EU announced an additional 50 million euros (63 million dollars) in aid for civilians trapped in the conflict. This brings the EU's contribution to 200 million euros - half of all international help provided so far.

Euro dominates first day

The euro also figured prominently at the informal Gymnich meeting of the EU's foreign ministers in Paphos. All eyes were on Germany's Foreign Minister Westerwelle after the European Central Bank announced its decision on Thursday to buy unlimited bonds of crisis states if needed. Germany shoulders most of the burden of all euro rescue measures, including the indirect aid offered by the ECB.

But Germany is divided when it comes to the ECB's plan. The head of Germany's central bank, Jens Weidmann, had desperately tried to stave off what he called state financing through firing up the printing press. Several leading politicians from the ruling coalition of CDU/CSU and FDP immediately voiced concerns regarding ECB President Mario Draghi's decision.

But Westerwelle (FDP) seemed calm in Paphos, noting that Germany wanted an independent Central Bank from the start and that it would therefore have to accept the bank's independent decisions.

'Light on the horizon'

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, right, speaks with Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn after an informal EU Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting in Kouklia, near Paphos, southwest of the island of Cyprus, Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Westerwelle (r): "An independent bank makes independent decisions"

While the FDP's chairman Philipp Rösler no longer fears a possible Greek exit from the currency union, Westerwelle played the European card in Cyprus, saying, "Nobody in the European Union should give up on any country of the eurozone."

For the first time in months, he added, he could "see a little light on the horizon." Portugal and Ireland were making progress in their consolidation efforts, he said, and Italy and Spain were committed to reform.

His Spanish counterpart Jose Manuel García Margallo welcomed the ECB's decision: "The fact that those words alone have brought back calm shows that it was what had to be done, that we just needed the courage and political decision." After the press conference of ECB President Mario Draghi on Thursday (06.09.2012), Spain's costs of refinancing on the capital markets dropped considerably.

Water scarcity worldwide, also in Cyprus

A final topic of the two-day meeting in Cyprus was water scarcity. It can be felt on the Mediterranean island that hosted the summit, where golf courses add their share to the problem. The ministers' meeting place, Aphrodite Hills Resort, is one such golfers' paradise. But Catherine Ashton had put regions outside of Europe on the official agenda, such as the Middle East, the Nile valley and Yemen.

Schloss Gymnich bei Bonn. Ehemals Gästehaus der Bundesregierung. Später Familiensitz der Kelly Family. Jetzt (Februar 2002) soll das Wasserschloss zu einem Hotel umgebaut werden.

EU foreign ministers first met informally at Castle Gymnich in 1974

"Water is a strategic good and possibly the biggest foreign policy issue of the future in many parts of the world," Ashton wrote in her invitation to the Gymnich meeting.

The informal summits of the EU's foreign ministers get their name from the first meeting place in such a set-up in 1974, Castle Gymnich near Bonn. They're aimed at providing a platform to discuss the political topics of the future. But pressing current issues in world affairs often come into focus, and this summit was no exception.

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