EU ministers in search for united front on arming Iraq

EU ministers in search for united front on arming Iraq

Conference of European foreign ministers in Brussels also to include discussion of situation in the Gaza Strip

Flags outside the European Union in Brussels (photo credit: Flickr/BY 2.0/motiqua )
Flags outside the European Union in Brussels (photo credit: Flickr/BY 2.0/motiqua )

Brussels (AFP) — EU ministers convened in Brussels on Friday in a rare summertime meeting to seek unanimous approval for the shipment of arms to Iraqi Kurds fighting Islamic State jihadists.

France and Britain have already moved ahead with plans to provide weapons to beleaguered Iraqi forces, but French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius pushed for the talks to mobilize an EU-wide response to the crisis in Iraq.

“I asked for this meeting so that all of Europe mobilizes and helps the Iraqis and Kurds,” Fabius said as he arrived for the talks.

Italy, which currently holds the EU’s rotating leadership and whose foreign minister Federica Mogherini is shortlisted to become the next EU foreign affairs chief, also called for talks.

“The Kurds need our support,” she said as she arrived at the meeting.

“It is important for us that there be a European agreement,” she added.

Defense matters are strictly the purview of member states and the push for an EU stance to send arms to a conflict zone is a rare one.

But alarming images of Iraqi minorities, including Christians, under siege by jihadists have struck chords in European capitals.

EU governments are also alarmed by the Islamic State’s ability to attract radicals from Europe who then return home to the West battle-hardened.

Ahead of Friday’s meeting, support for a strong message on arming Iraq was growing, even from member states historically less inclined to back military adventures abroad.

Usually cautious Germany this week pledged to work “full-speed” on the supply of “non-lethal” equipment such as armored vehicles, helmets and flak jackets to Iraq.

Germany is a major arms manufacturer and going into the meeting, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier seemed ready to boost German action, despite national restrictions limiting arms exports to raging conflicts.

“Europeans must not limit themselves to praising the courageous fight of the Kurdish security forces. We also need to do something first of all to meet basic needs,” he said.

Sweden, which is usually reluctant to participate in military missions, stressed, however, that the EU’s “great power is in its humanitarian response.”

“Other countries have power to do other things,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

Current EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who officially convened the meeting, had been criticized earlier in the week for the bloc’s slow response to the unfurling crisis in Iraq.

But a senior European official, speaking in the run-up to the talks on Thursday, deplored the “distorted” view of a shut-down EU in August.

This was “at best unfair,” he said. The European Union “is not on holiday.”

Earlier this week, the European Commission announced it would boost humanitarian aid to Iraq to 17 million euros ($22 million), and gave the green light for special emergency measures to meet the crisis.

But Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, who is also attending the meeting, said the real challenge in helping civilians was access, not funding.

Also on the agenda will be the crises in Ukraine and the Gaza Strip and a request by Spain to address the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

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