Despite brave words EU ministers struggle to keep peace hopes alive


EU: Expressions of hope were undermined by events in Gaza, writes Denis Staunton, in Tullamore

European Union foreign ministers had scarcely left Tullamore, Co Offaly, after two days of talks dominated by the Middle East peace process when an Israeli missile killed the Hamas leader, Mr Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi, in Gaza and ignited a fresh explosion of anger in the region.

The assassination derailed another modest attempt to promote understanding last night, when a Palestinian delegation refused to take part in a dialogue with Israelis organised by the Centre for Reconciliation at Glencree, Co Wicklow. The meetings with politicians and officials engaged in the Northern Ireland peace process were aimed at sharing insights that could prove useful in the Middle East.

In Tullamore, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, insisted that Europeans would not abandon their efforts to facilitate peace in the region, despite recent setbacks. "We do not shrink into despair. We know our responsibilities," he said.

Mr Cowen arrived in Tullamore on Friday breathing fire against "some commentators and certain Opposition spokesmen", who had criticised his response to last week's Middle East initiative in Washington. He said observers outside Ireland had understood that, while welcoming some of President Bush's remarks, the EU had not shifted its position on the Middle East.

"My approach to President Bush's statement was quite straightforward. When President Bush said something that the EU could endorse, I welcomed it. Where there was a difference of perspective, I made that clear. This appears to have been widely understood elsewhere," he said.

Mr Cowen outlined areas of disagreement between the EU and the US, stressing that "final status" issues such as the border between an Israeli and a Palestinian state and the future of refugees can only be agreed by the two parties themselves.

Mr Cowen is mistaken in believing that criticism of his initial statement was limited to Irish commentators. Officials from other member-states acknowledged that the statement reflected the EU's position but suggested that its tone was excessively conciliatory towards Washington. When one official from a small member-state read Mr Cowen's comments on Friday, he asked: "Why didn't he say that in the first place?"

By the time the ministers issued a joint statement on Saturday - an unusual move during an "informal meeting" - Mr Bush had changed his own tune, stressing that his remarks had not been meant to prejudge the outcome of final status talks.

The External Relations Commissioner, Mr Chris Patten, acknowledged with a frankness that was in short supply in Tullamore that events in Washington could discourage the Palestinians. He warned Israel that the EU could not be expected to invest in reconstructing Gaza without solid assurances that Israeli forces would not destroy European projects there.

In public, all ministers insisted that the "road map" remained the only plausible route to peace and that they continued to have confidence in the role of the quartet.

At least one minister said privately, however, that the deal between Mr Bush and Mr Sharon had created a new political reality which the Palestinians would have to deal with. A senior EU official said efforts to encourage the Palestinians to bring forward an initiative of their own on the future of Gaza had so far been unsuccessful.

The quartet will meet in New York in early May and the conciliators at Glencree will no doubt seek to reschedule their Middle East programme. All those who feel good will towards both sides of the conflict can be forgiven, however, if they shrink a little further into despair this morning.