Monday, October 11, 2004

One down…

And one to go… Foreign ministers of the EU member states today agreed in Luxembourg to lift the arms embargo from Libya but refused to lift the arms ban on China. In passing, they also imposed a visa ban on senior officials from Burma

Perversely, Libya gets the green light because it has forsaken its plans to produce weapons of mass destruction, and because Italy wants to supply it (at a price) with equipment to help it crack down on illegal migration. China, on the other hand, which has no intentions whatsoever of abandoning its WMD, has France straining at the leash to sell it more, having lost its valued customer in Saddam Hussein.

However, the China issue is by no means over. A fudge is on the way, with ministers working on a stronger EU code of conduct on arms exports, to replace the ban – which then means that France (and Germany) can flog the Chinese anything they want, as the code has neither statutory effect nor status in international law.

Britain, as it has been for some time, is sitting on the fence with Jack Straw telling a press conference that "We're not in any sense 'against' the lifting of the embargo, but it's got to be done with a proper and sensible way." Straw denies that he is holding back for fear of offending the US.

The more principled Nordic countries are holding out, on the grounds that the Chinese human rights record still has not improved enough, while some of the recent accession countries are responding to US lobbying.

"There was no consensus", says German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, telling reporters that the issue "will require further discussions." Thus has he proved that understatement is not the monopoly of the British.

France will have another go immediately prior to the EU-China summit, scheduled for 8 December, while the Dutch presidency has promised to "speed up work on the code of conduct," in the meantime hoping for some "positive signals on Chinese side" in respect of improvement in civil rights.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gregory Suchan would not have been impressed. Last week, during a visit to Brussels, he observed that "you can have an improving relationship with China and still have an arms embargo." But, he said, "We're not sitting here planning on how we will spank Europe."

Well... perhaps not all of Europe.

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