Press Advisories

21. 1. 2009 16:09

Czech Presidency faces up to Gaza and gas dispute

MEPs quizzed Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg at length on the situation in Gaza and the gas dispute during a debate at the EP Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday on the Czech Presidency's priorities. EU enlargement to the Balkans and the Eastern Partnership were also discussed.

"Our priority at the moment is to strengthen the achieved ceasefire as a precondition for alleviating the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip", said the Czech minister. "Israel seems to have accomplished its main objective and can begin withdrawing its forces. By proclaiming their own victory Hamas is getting ready for the cessation of hostilities on their part", he added.

Mr Schwarzenberg called for better border controls, especially between Egypt and Gaza, where weapons are being smuggled, and say that could involve making use of the proposed naval operations by Britain, Germany, and France. On the Israeli side, the opening of border crossings and removal of the current blockade were among the presidency's goals, he said.

"If Hamas renounces violence, it will become a normal political movement", was Mr Schwarzenberg's reply to Ignacio Salafranca (EPP-ED, ES), who asked him about the chances of dialogue with that movement and whether it was being kept on the EU's list of terrorist organisations. The minister said that at present he was not in favour of talking directly with Hamas, preferring to leave this to Egypt, which, as it bordered the Gaza Strip and because of the efforts it had made to help resolve the crisis, had more legitimacy.

The reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure was a topic raised by several MEPs, including Véronique de Keyser (PES, BE) and Mario Matzakis (ALDE, CY). According to the minister, the rebuilding effort will be shared between the EU, the Arab states and the United States. "Israel might possibly contribute", he thought.

Gas crisis

Turning to the gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine and the possible outcome of the crisis, Mr Schwarzenberg said he would only be satisfied with the announced resumption of Russian gas supplies to Europe "when the gas has reached the Slovak frontier".

"The main lesson learned from this crisis is that Russia and Ukraine aren’t reliable suppliers. Europe must think about alternative sources and pipelines. In this context, project Nabucco becomes more important", argued the minister. The Nabucco gas pipeline, which is intended to supply Europe with gas from the Caspian Sea via Turkey, is in the hands of private companies and does not receive any EU financial support, a situation deplored by Konrad Szymanski (UEN, PL) and Janusz Onyszkiewicz (ALDE, PL).

Kyriacos Triantaphyllides (GUE/NGL, CY) was concerned about statements made by the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was reported to have threatened to block the Nabucco project if progress is not made in his country's accession talks with the EU. Energy is among the negotiation chapters which have not yet been opened with Turkey, the Cypriot MEP pointed out.

Enlargement of the EU to the Western Balkans

"The Czech Presidency is intent on achieving further progress on EU enlargement, both by helping the candidate countries get closer to membership and by helping the associated countries get closer to the candidate status", said Mr Schwarzenberg.

Regarding the accession of Croatia, the main stumbling block at present is the border dispute with Slovenia, pointed out Jelko Kacin (ALDE, SL) and Alojz Peterle (EPP-ED, SL). Slovenia is blocking in the Council the opening of further negotiating chapters with Croatia.

Eastern Partnership

The Czech Presidency will also emphasise the Eastern Partnership, which is intended to strengthen ties between the European Union and the six former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaidjan, Moldavia and Belarus) and is among the priorities of the presidency, said Mr Schwarzenberg. "This partnership is not a cheap substitute for enlargement but a tailor-made way to bring overall development, stability and prosperity to the whole region", he said. Free trade areas and more flexible visa arrangements could be negotiated with this group of countries.

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