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Syria at heart of EU talks in Vilnius

05 september 2013, 15:34
0
Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide prior to a meeting at the presidential palace in Vilnius. ©AFP
Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide prior to a meeting at the presidential palace in Vilnius. ©AFP
EU foreign ministers gather Friday in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius seeking a joint position on Syria as France stands alone in the 28-nation bloc in favour of military intervention, AFP reports.

Syria will also be at the heart of G20 summit talks taking place at the same time in nearby Saint Petersburg which are expected to overshadow the informal ministerial talks in the capital of Lithuania, current holder of the rotating European Union presidency.

"Events at the G20 talks are likely to set our agenda," an EU diplomat told AFP ahead of the two-day EU meeting which US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend for his first time since taking on the US diplomatic brief.

The twice-yearly informal talks are seen as a rare opportunity for Europe's foreign ministers to get together for in-depth debate on non-urgent subjects.

But with Syria dominating the global agenda, the foreign ministers of France, Germany and possibly Britain are expected to join heads of state and government at the G20 talks before heading to Vilnius for a meeting that may once more highlight Europe's diplomatic divisions.

Most EU nations stand opposed to the military options favoured by Washington and Paris as reprisal for alleged chemical weapons attacks blamed on President Bashar al-Assad that left hundreds dead last month.

An EU diplomat close to the matter told AFP that France stood isolated among its peers in its determination to strike Assad, with Britain on the sidelines after its parliament voted against military action.

The sceptics say any retaliatory strike could have unpredictable and dangerous consequences and stress the need for a coordinated response backed by the UN.

"What would be the consequences in Syria and in the region? What would be the consequences of acting without the consent of the UN Security Council?," said influential Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders.

Belgium, which joined military action in Libya and in Mali, doubts the merits of intervening in Syria and wants proof that Damascus used chemical weapons against its people.

"I am not yet convinced. What we want is to receive information showing the use of these arms," Reynders said Wednesday.

Many EU nations, including Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands and some Scandinavian states are reticent about resorting to military action.

Denmark and Cyprus are among those hesitating, concerned about the make-up of any "coalition of the willing" while Italy and Belgium want proper legal justification for the use of force.

Germany meanwhile wants to back the United States and France but is sceptical about the merit of limited surgical strikes.

"Only a political solution can end the terrible bloodshed, the destruction of Syria. It is time for the international community to put aside their differences and bring the parties to the conflict to the negotiations table," EU president Herman Van Rompuy said on Wednesday.

EU defence ministers gather in Vilnius on Thursday ahead of their foreign affairs counterparts to hone joint defence strategies.

They will also host NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has condemned the use of chemical weapons but who also stresses the need for a political solution in Syria.

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