The General Affairs and External Relations Council held on 14 and 15 May was an occasion not only for EU foreign ministers to come together but also for the EU's defence and development ministers to hold talks in parallel.
The highlight of the meeting was the first joint session of EU foreign ministers and their Arab League colleagues to discuss the Middle East peace process.
In connection with the preparations for the Summit to be held on 18 May 2007 in Samara, the foreign ministers discussed in depth the EU's relations with Russia. Foreign Minister Steinmeier emphasized the need particularly in difficult times to reach out to and endeavour to talk with one another. The ministers discussed current problems in EU-Russian relations. They gave assurances of mutual solidarity and expressed their clear desire to resolve existing problems in cooperation with Russia.
The European Union will play its part, Frank-Walter Steinmeier noted, to make such a discussion possible. The Summit in Samara would be an opportunity for a dispassionate and objective stocktake of the Union's relations with Russia. On that basis their relations would then have to be further developed in a constructive spirit. Russia and the EU, he added, were not only important partners for each other in the economic field, they were also strategic partners. On a host of international policy issues the EU needed the Russian Federation's support, and by the same token Russia needed the EU.
The Middle East peace process
For the first time EU foreign ministers met with representatives of the Arab League (AL) on the margins of the General Affairs and External Relations Council. The meeting was convened by the Council Presidency to enable the Arab League's new peace initiative to be discussed by all EU foreign ministers. The Arab League reaffirmed in Brussels its willingness in principle to conclude peace with Israel, pointing out that the Arab peace initiative offered a historically unique opportunity for peace and the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries.
After the meeting Minister Steinmeier noted that the initiative represented a significant step forward for the Middle East peace process and emphasized that the European Union remained committed to work for peace in the region. What was important now, he added, was for the League to enter into a direct dialogue with Israel. Direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians also needed to be intensified. That was the only way that life for the Palestinians and security for Israel could be improved and political progress towards a two-state solution could become a real prospect.
Also in future, he noted, the European Union would use its close ties with both partners to move the peace process forward. Foreign Minister Livni of Israel had accordingly been invited to attend the next Foreign Ministers Council in June in Luxembourg.
The EU continues to view the human rights situation in Uzbekistan with profound concern. The EU's yardstick in the field of human rights remains improvements in the situation of the people on the ground.
The Uzbek Government has taken some initial small steps pointing in the right direction. The EU acknowledges these signals and expects this course to continue. Progressive modifications to the sanctions are intended to demonstrate to Uzbekistan the EU's willingness in principle to negotiate. To emphasize this willingness, four names were removed from the list of persons banned from obtaining visas and it was agreed to review the sanctions regime once again in six months' time.
Joint session of EU foreign and defence ministers
The EU foreign and defence ministers convened for their regular six-monthly joint meeting. The main focus of their discussions were the ongoing missions in which the EU is participating.
On Kosovo the EU is seeking the adoption in the near future of a United Nations Security Council Resolution. In anticipation of its adoption shortly, intensive preparations are under way for the biggest ever European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) mission, which is intended to ensure security and strengthen the rule of law in Kosovo. In the long term the plan is to enable the security organs in Kosovo to progressively take over responsibility for security there.
Joint Action Plan with South Africa
On the margins of the Council the EU Troika held a meeting with South Africa. With the signing of a Joint Action Plan an important project of the German Presidency was brought to a successful conclusion. The cooperation between the EU and South Africa will be intensified and developed into a strategic partnership. According to Minister Steinmeier, this will give a whole new quality to relations between South Africa and the EU.