By Joanna Sopinska and Manon Malhere
Tunisia and Belarus are set to be the two main topics on which EU's 27 ministers will focus during the 31 January Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels.
"There is a packed agenda," and certain "subjects will dominate the debate," declared European External Action Service (EAS) Secretary-General Pierre Vimont during a press conference, on 28 January.
The EU diplomatic corps have already pre-cooked a set of sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's regime, including a travel ban and an asset freeze. According to a senior EU diplomat, this list might be extended by "certain economic sanctions". He underlined, however, that before taking such a decision the EU has to weigh carefully all the pros and cons. "You have to look at the implications of such measures not to jeopardise some of your interests, not only those of the EU business community," said the diplomat. He added that there is a consensus among the member states on the need for economic restrictions, but no decision has yet been reached on their nature. The latest draft conclusions seen by Europolitics do not mention any such measures. The travel ban will target 158 people in total, including those already on the list of the initial ban following the 2004 and 2006 crackdowns and those responsible for the December 2010 repressions.
On the Tunisian question, ministers will adopt conclusions on the various instruments that the EU may mobilise to accompany the democratic transition process including, in particular, assistance with future elections. A decision aiming to adopt restrictive measures against former President Ben Ali, at present exiled in Saudi Arabia, as well as his family and close relatives will also be the order of the day (see Europolitics 4129).
The recent riots in Egypt, which were not planned in the original agenda, and the situation in the Mediterranean region as a whole are also very likely to generate an exchange of views. Vimont, however, specified that a comprehensive approach on the Arab world is "a serious question for which we need preliminary preparation to provide a useful discussion". As far as Egypt is concerned, the secretary-general has called for "prudence. Each country has its own specific nature, and we must be careful not to make generalisations".
In addition, the ministers will briefly discuss the Sahel strategy and the situation in Sudan. The Ivory Coast will also feature, specifically regarding the restrictive measures adopted against Laurent Gbagbo, his close relatives and 11 economic entities at the beginning of January. Also on the agenda will be the question of freedom of religion, the aim being to allow an exchange of views to promote tolerance without making a "distinction either between countries or religions," Vimont explained (see separate article).
On a special request of "several" member states, the ministers will discuss the situation in Albania following violent protests in Tirana, on 24 January (4126) and the visit by the EU's Balkans envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, on 26 January, who urged the country to immediately solve the crisis.
Over dinner, the ministers will briefly discuss relations with Russia as a follow-up to the latest exchange of views at the European Council in December 2010. They will aim at defining subjects for the forthcoming summit with Russia to take place in the first half of this year. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, will also present an account of the negotiations carried out on behalf of G3+3 (US, Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany) with Iran concerning the country's nuclear programme, on 21-22 January in Istanbul. Finally, an inventory of Middle-East peace process meetings will be also presented, with Ashton due to attend the meeting between the EU, Russia, the US and UN in Munich, on 5 February.