Iraq issue complicates Spring's task at informal Tralee meeting


WILLKOMMEN and bienvenu, welcome, to Tralee's own Spring Show. After the Roses, Europe's foreign ministers come to town this weekend - and Tralee steps on to the European stage.

All politics - even international diplomacy - is in the end local, and so, although the central preoccupations of the weekend's deliberations will undoubtedly be far from Kerry's shores, the decision of the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs to extend the county's traditional hospitality to his European counterparts will not be lost on Kerry North voters. Or so he hopes.

And to make sure they are aware of the privilege bestowed on them, Mr Spring called a special briefing for journalists in Fenit. The practice of EU presidency ministers hosting informal ministerial meetings in their home constituencies is well established. Mr Spring is lucky enough to represent a constituency which is well equipped to cope with the complex conference facilities required for meetings that have to be translated into the four main European languages, and press facilities for the 380 accredited journalists, 28 TV and 28 radio stations.

Less fortunate ministers make less political mileage out of their prerogative, although both the Minister for Health, Mr Noonan, this week in Adare Castle, and the Minister for the Arts, Mr Higgins, next month in Galway, are also laying on smaller shows in their home constituencies. The rest will have to do with Dublin Castle, or Killarney in the case of the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Yates.

The once a presidency informal meetings, although producing no formal conclusions or statement, have become an increasingly important part of the ministerial calendar. Once seen as get to know you sessions attended by few hacks, they have now become important brainstorming sessions with much done to clear huge agendas. Media interest has increased accordingly.

Last spring's finance ministers' informal in Verona saw major work on the structure of the single currency - and when they meet again in Dublin in two weeks' time they are expected to make more progress.

Not that the ministers' social needs will be neglected this weekend. Tomorrow night they will be wined and dined by the Tanaiste at the Tralee Golf Club (where else?), then brought back to town to experience Irish craic from local traditional musicians in the Brogue Inn. Hacks will be regaled in Val O'Shea's.

AS often happens with the foreign ministers, the agenda is likely to be domiated by issues not originally up for mention. This time the US bombing of Iraq and the EU's reaction - or, more correctly, non reaction - are likely to dominate media interest and Mr Spring will be hard pressed to shape a discussion on the issue that will not result in headlines about European disunity.

It may be possible to steer the ministers away from the "politics of condemnation" by concentrating on the future of relations with Iraq rather than the past, but a row or a fudge is still likely. An attempt to work out a common EU position for the forthcoming UN General Assembly on the question of allowing Iraqi oil sales to pay for food is likely to open up divisions between the French and more pro US countries like Britain and Germany.

Ministers will be briefed tomorrow by the Tanaiste on his discussions with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Mr David Levy, last night. There is widespread concern at how genuinely committed Israel is to honouring the Peres government's undertakings - and at the recent approval of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

And there will be concern on how to manage a trip planned by Mr Spring and the EU's diplomatic troika to the region within the next month. The plans are dogged by Israeli insistence that Mr Spring should not return to visit the Palestinian headquarters in East Jerusalem, Orient House. Diplomatic sources suggested yesterday that Israeli obstruction could mean ministers deciding the trip should go ahead - without visiting Jerusalem.

Ministers will also debate the role of the EU in Bosnia, in the aftermath of elections to be held soon, and relations with Croatia. There is disagreement about whether Croatia should be rewarded for supporting the peace process with full membership of the Council of Europe, or whether its abysmal human rights record should preclude that yet.

The ministers are likely to reaffirm their total opposition to US extra territorial penalties for companies trading with Cuba, despite the best efforts of Mr Clinton's special envoy, Mr Stuart Eisenstadt. Mr Eisenstadt, a former US ambassador to the EU, was in Dublin yesterday to lobby Mr Spring to support the US President's campaign against Cuba.

He says he was listened to politely but won little sympathy. Diplomats here are hoping the issue will disappear after the US presidential election.

ON Sunday morning the ministers will hear a progress report from Mr Spring's personal representative on the Inter Governmental Conference (IGC), Mr Noel Dorr, but the format of the meeting - without officials or detailed texts to work on - is likely to mean only a general discussion of working methods.

During the week in Brussels the `ministers' personal IGC representatives made more detailed progress on specific amendments. They agreed to incorporate wording in the treaty on the right of access to documents and on the principle of incorporating a list of fundamental rights.

To the dismay of the Commission, attempts to rationalise the complex system of the EU's representation abroad foundered. There are ambiguities over whether the Commission or the member states represent the Union in international bodies like the World Trade Organisation and on how they are to reach the common position required by the European Court.

While member states appear reluctant to cede more authority to the Commission, some diplomatic sources suggest that positions may soften later in the process.

And so to Tralee. As Mr Spring concludes his invitation to colleagues, "Kristi and I look forward very much to welcoming you and your partner to the lovely county of Kerry. Yours sincerely, Dick Spring TD"

And it won't be all work. I feel a song coming on.