EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg have confirmed the EU will drop trade sanctions against Myanmar in a bid to reward democratic progress, but the EU will strengthen its sanctions against Syria.
The European Union has said it wants to reward political change in Myanmar and encourage the country to move further. EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, suspended most of the bloc's sanctions, initially for a period of one year. Precious stones, timber and a number of important metals can now be imported from Myanmar into the EU, but the arms embargo remains in place.
The German deputy foreign minister, Michael Link, said in Luxembourg that he was encouraged by the developments in Myanmar: "We have to do both: on the one side recognize that things are moving in the right direction, and that they are doing so more quickly than most of us expected, while on the other hand we can't offer a complete removal of the sanctions."
New EU office in Myanmar
One of the reasons Link would hesitate to remove all sanctions is the fact that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has so far refused to take her oath in parliament on the basis of a constitution which was designed for military rule and gives the military privileges.
The British foreign minister, William Hague, has also spoken out in favor of a cautious line. The sanctions "can be imposed once more," he said, "if Myanmar moves in the wrong direction."
The foreign ministers are demanding from the Myanmar government "the unconditional release of all remaining political prisoners and the removal of all restrictions on those who have already been released."
President Thein Sein, they say, must continue the reform process. The EU foreign affairs representative, Catherine Ashton, is due to travel to Myanmar in a few days, where she will open a liaison office which will aim to encourage political change.
What counts as luxury?
The foreign ministers took an entirely different line on Syria, strengthening the sanctions against the country for the 14th time.
Under the latest restriction, the government of President Bashar el-Assad will no longer have access to civilian products from the EU which could be used for repressive purposes - so called "dual-use products."
There will also be a ban on luxury goods, although it has yet to be determined what precisely falls under that designation. There are already arms and oil embargos in place, as well as financial sanctions and individual sanctions against leading members of Assad's government and his family.
High hopes for Annan
Sanctions are only one aspect of the strategy: the EU also hopes that the mission led by the UN special representative Kofi Annan will be successful. He has got the UN Security Council - with the approval of Russia and China - to agree to send 300 observers to Syria.
For the Luxembourg foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, this seems like the last resort: "One has to support Kofi Annan, since if his plan is not successful there'll be an unlimited civil war. It's the only chance the international community has."
But Asselborn does not see military intervention as an option: "A military solution in Syria would cost tens of thousands of lives."
Room to breathe
His Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt agrees, but he considers the observer mission to be only a first step. It should "provide a breathing space for the political process," he says. And the political phase will be the hardest.
But it's still not clear whether the observer mission will even take place at all as planned, let alone whether it can reach the diplomatic aims which Bildt sees for it.
The EU, however, has no more options when it comes to sanctions. And since it rejects military intervention, it has no alternative but to place its faith in international diplomacy.
Author: Christoph Hasselbach / mll
Editor: Greg Wiser