European Union (EU) foreign ministers have renewed the bloc’s “Common Position” on Burma, extending existing sanctions until April 2011.
In a statement released on Monday, the European Council expressed “serious concerns” that the recently published election laws “do not provide for free and fair elections.” and restated its call “for the release of the political prisoners and detainees, including Aung San Suu Kyi.”
However, the EU said that it “stands ready to respond positively to genuine progress in Burma/Myanmar.” In keeping with the Western trend toward dialogue with the Burmese military junta, the EU says it hopes to maintain its dialogue with Naypidaw.
The EU had previously pledged to tighten or expand sanctions if the junta did not respond to requests for reform. However, despite what the European Burma Network listed as a number of factors in what it deemed to be “a continued decline in the human rights and political situation in Burma,” since the common position was last discussed in April 2009, the bloc has not amended its existing sanctions.
This comes after months of the US discussing a pledge to relax its sanctions on the junta, if Napyidaw responded positively to its overtures. Asean member-states, which do significant business in Burma, spun the US “policy review” as an admission by Washington that sanctions had not worked.
Existing EU sanctions do not target business cronies of the junta, in the way US sanctions do. Campaign groups believe that European sanctions are applied reactively, whenever there is a sufficiently glaring atrocity in Burma, rather than as part of a clear strategy.
Moreover, the existing sanctions are not adhered to, or at least can be gotten around. A year-old report by Friends of the Earth (Netherlands) demonstrated that loopholes exist, with Burmese gems for import into the EU sold openly on the Ebay website. Burma is renowned for the quality of its rubies in particular.
The EU will try to take its discussions with the junta to the next level, by sending a diplomatic mission to Burma later this year. But it was unclear if Naypyidaw would be willing to receive EU diplomats.
“We are only prepared to go there if we are received at the highest level. We are not prepared to be humiliated,” an unnamed diplomat told Agence-France Press on Monday.
Within the EU, there has been much debate over ultimate responsibility for foreign policy, especially in the context of the recently agreed to Lisbon Treaty. While the political and legal ramifications of the vast and complex treaty await some untangling, a new EU “foreign minister” is in place, and additional powers have been shifted away from national governments to Brussels and European Commission officials. Some national politicians openly advocate for a more centralized “European” foreign policy.
European-based Burma lobby groups sent a letter to the foreign ministers prior to the Monday meeting, a copy of which was seen by The Irrawaddy. The groups said that they “are deeply concerned that European Commission staff openly and publicly advocate against the agreed Common Position of EU members states and against the positions taken by the European Parliament in its resolutions. We believe that it is unacceptable that Commission officials who have no democratic mandate undermine the official position of democratically accountable member states and the European Parliament.”
EU member states are in theory meant to adhere to the common position. However, the reality is somewhat more complex. The statement on Monday outlined that the EU “welcomes the adoption of Resolution 13/25 of the UN Human Rights Council, and endorses the Progress report by the UN Special Rapporteur, Mr Quintana.”
However the EU did not explicitly endorse Quintana’s recommendation that the UN Security Council look into setting up a Commission of Inquiry into possible war crimes in Burma. The UK and the Czech Republic, both EU member states, had previously backed Quintana’s recommendation. Ireland did not back the recommendation directly, instead opting to await the revision of the EU common position.
On the other hand, campaign groups believe that other EU member states would prefer to soften the common position. France refused to back calls for Total to end its operations in Burma, and both Paris and Berlin have in the past sought to block EU sanctions on Burma.
However, there are what some observers believe to be important changes in the EU stance, such as its emphasis on calling for the junta to talk to the opposition and ethnic groups. The NLD has refused to take part in what it deems sham elections, and many ethnic militias are refusing to agree to the junta’s push for them to join the state security forces.
In a press release, Burma UK Campaign Director Mark Farmaner said, “We strongly welcome the call for the regime to enter into dialogue with the opposition and ethnic groups,” and added, “We call on the EU to make this the main focus of diplomatic efforts, rather than trying to tinker with laws relating to fake elections later this year.”
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