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Europe

Europe offers its hand to Egypt but keeps Israel at arm's length

A meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg has defined the next round of objectives for Europe's involvement in Middle East regional stability. Egypt is the main beneficiary while Israel remains at arms length.

Graphic of an EU flag and map

The EU's foreign ministers had a Middle East-heavy agenda

The European Union will push for closer ties with Egypt, continue to review the state of relations with Israel and increase pressure on Iran to accept the diplomatic terms offered by the United States. That was agreed at a meeting in Luxembourg of EU foreign ministers whose agenda had been heavy with topics concerning the Middle East.

The EU "supports Egyptian efforts to work on closer ties ... (and) has decided to go a step further to enhancing relations," said Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Egypt is a key member of the EU's "neighborhood policy" and the current co-chair of its new Union for the Mediterranean. In 2008, Egypt asked the EU to work on improving bilateral relations in areas such as research and development, trade and democratic reforms.

"Enhancing the relations means you work with the EU and you put the relations on a higher level, the maximum you can attain without acquiring membership," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit told journalists after the meeting, which also addressed the growing concern over a potential swine flu pandemic.

"I'm sure that next year we would have that final agreement on the enhancement of relations between Egypt and the EU as long as our commitment and the EU commitment is there to push for it," he said.

Abul Gheit also reported to the EU foreign ministers' meeting that, in his opinion, Israel's new government has not made a single positive move towards making peace with the Palestinians since it took power.

"I do not believe the Israeli government has taken any positive moves up to this moment – nothing whatsoever," the Egyptian foreign minister said.

EU split over relations with Israel

The EU has already agreed to upgrade its relationship with Israel, but that process has come under fire following Israel's Gaza offensive and the new government's expansive settlement policy.

An Israeli solidier in front of the EU and Israel flags and a shot of Gaza

The Gaza war drove a wedge between the EU and Israel

EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said that it was too early for the EU to strengthen ties with Israel. "On the one hand, the upgrading was an offer that in principle still stands. But for it to be taken up and pursued, we need to be sure that we are working with the same terms of reference; and for Europeans, the context of EU-Israel relations remains the same: work for a prosperous, secure and peaceful Middle East," she said.

That should include "an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel with East Jerusalem as its capital," she added.

But Ferrero-Waldner's stance clashes with that of the Czech government and current EU presidency.

On Sunday, the Czech Republic's outgoing Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek told the Ha'aretz newspaper in Israel that he was "strongly critical" of earlier comments by the commissioner, which he termed "really hasty."

The decision whether to strengthen ties between the EU and Israel is "a political decision to be taken by the council (of EU member states). I'm still president of the council, and I should know something about it," he stated.

Ferrero-Waldner hit back on Monday, saying that Topolanek "does not know the council's conclusions. He should read the council conclusions."

But Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who is set to take up the EU's presidency on July 1, played down the significance of the open split between the EU's executive and political leadership, stressing that any move towards Israel would depend on events.

"The upgrade is an option, but we are not at the moment at the time where we need to take the decision on what to do with it. We have to wait and see where the Israeli government comes out on some of the key issues," he said.

Take the new US opportunity, Europe tells Iran

President Obama in front of the Iranian flag

Obama has offered Iran the possibility of diplomatic ties

The EU appeared more united on the topic of Iran with the foreign ministers taking the opportunity to urge the Islamic Republic to take advantage of a change in US policy to seal a deal and end the standoff over its nuclear ambitions.

EU foreign ministers welcomed Washington's new attitude, saying it creates a "window of opportunity" for talks on Iran's atomic program and other issues.

"The EU calls upon Iran to seize this opportunity to engage seriously with the international community in a spirit of mutual respect, in order to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue," they said in a statement.

Such a solution "will address Iran's interests, including the development of a civil nuclear power generation program, as well as the international community's concerns,” the statement read. "The evolution of our relations with Iran will also depend on it."

However Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, in a television interview broadcast Sunday, said that his country was not ready to talk to the United States unconditionally. "We should just have a clear-cut framework for talks," he said.

Russia accuses EU of over-expanding its influence

The Russian and EU flags

Russia and the EU have had a series of rows in recent months

In what could be the start of a new row between the EU and Russia, the foreign ministers also dismissed as "nonsense" a claim by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the EU is planning to build a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, made just 24 hours before a meeting with him.

On March 21, Lavrov said that the EU was trying to build a "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe by setting up a so-called "Eastern Partnership" with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

But, according to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, Lavrov "knows himself that's nonsense. We strongly defend the point of view that there should be no spheres of influence, neither for the Russians, nor for us."

The EU's top diplomat, Javier Solana, said that Lavrov's accusation was simply "not true."

"We have a group of countries with which we have a special relationship because of neighborhood, because of trade, because of so many things. We want to establish a mechanism of relationship which is more stable, more institutional, and that has nothing to do with our relationship with Russia," he said.

Lavrov is set to meet EU diplomats in Luxembourg on Tuesday for long-scheduled talks.

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