EU to press for Mid-East role

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The Independent Online
Defying Israeli and American sensitivities on an extended European role in the peace process, EU foreign ministers will try to overcome differences on the question of a European envoy to the Middle East when they meet in Luxembourg next Monday.

The appointment was proposed by EU heads of government earlier this month but so far has not materialised due to divisions over the mandate the envoy should be given. Irish Foreign Minister Dick Spring said in Strasbourg yesterday there was a clear desire for a more "hands on" role for the EU in the peace process, although he conceded that definitive agreement on neither the scope of the mandate nor the identity of the future envoy could be guaranteed to emerge from Monday's meeting.

Jacques Delors is among those who have been suggested as a potential candidate for the post, but there is strong resistance among some member states to any appointee who might be seen as bringing along too much "political baggage".

The fear being voiced in other capitals, however, is that the appointee will have to be a senior political personality rather than a career diplomat if the EU's emissary is to have any hope of exerting influence.

Mr Spring denied there was competition between the EU and the US in a bid to shape the direction of the talks but he insisted Europe's economic weight in the region could not be ignored. "The EU is the major trading partner for every country in the region and indeed is the biggest donor to the Palestinian authority", he said. Europe's biggest political leverage lies in the fact that it accounts for half of Israel's foreign trade and 85% of aid to the Palestinian people.

One of the best ways of advancing peace would be to guarantee the economic regeneration of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Mr Spring said. "I have to say I don't see any other way of that happening without the active involvement - in cash terms or otherwise - of the European Union", he added.

Mr Spring, who visited the Middle East on the EU's behalf three weeks ago, played down the prospect of Israeli objections to the appointment of an envoy. He was also careful to stress that the desire is not for an EU seat at the negotiating table, withIrish officials adding that the emphasis would be on appointing a close observer of both the talks and the channelling of economic aid.

The Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, who is to visit Israel at the end of next week, said yesterday that the appointment of an EU envoy should not be ruled out, but warned against appointment "for its own sake".