Bridges from Rhodes

Foreign ministers from current and future European Union countries began a two-day «brainstorming session» on the Greek island of Rhodes yesterday to consider their response to developments in Iraq, the Middle East, and, on a longer-term framework, transatlantic relations. The 25 ministers, from the current 15 EU members plus the 10 newcomers who will join in May next year, expressed unanimous support for the «road map» toward Palestinian statehood by 2005 and agreed to send diplomats back to Baghdad as soon as possible. «We agreed… to give the order for the return of the chargés d’affaires of our countries to Iraq… (Their presence) will enhance our activities in the humanitarian sector and in the evaluation on the ground,» Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou told a press conference last night. EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten will coordinate the bloc’s humanitarian mission in Iraq, the ministers decided. The meeting is also an attempt to heal deep rifts within Europe over the war in Iraq and seems have started auspiciously. «It was clear (yesterday) that people wanted to put (the division) behind us,» said UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. On the Palestinian issue and the «road map» which the EU, jointly with the US, Russia and the United Nations, presented earlier this week, the ministers agreed that it could be counterproductive to see peace talks as an excuse to sideline Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, saying that this would hurt the credibility of newly appointed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas with his own people. «Arafat is a historical figure and a necessary player,» said Papandreou. The more difficult part of the meeting comes today, during a cruise from Rhodes to the island of Kastellorizo, in Greece’s extreme southeast, when ministers tackle relations with the US and European attempts to build a separate defense structure. Papandreou has asked strategic thinkers, politicians and economists to propose remedies for strained EU-US ties. Greek officials said Papandreou hoped to use the contributions as a foundation to create an Atlantic Forum of opinion leaders to thrash out policy differences on an agenda ranging from pre-emptive wars to regional conflicts. In Kastellorizo, the ministers will meet with their colleagues from EU hopefuls Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey before making the short crossing to the Turkish town of Kas in the afternoon.