Arab spring on tap for EU foreign ministers in Copenhagen

Assisting mid-east pro-democracy movements will be a major topic during informal two-day gathering

European foreign ministers meeting in Copenhagen today and tomorrow are expected to put discussions about human rights and foreign policy priorities at the top of their agenda.

The informal gathering, called the Gymnich, will also be attended by the union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. It is one of the most high profile meetings on home turf for the Danish presidency.

”The Gymnich is an opportunity for the European foreign ministers to discuss issues more in depth and focus on the longer term,” foreign minister Villy Søvndal wrote in a press release. Søvndal added that it was important to create a more focused foreign policy during the economic crisis.

“I am especially looking forward to discuss how we can strengthen our profile on human rights. Even though we are facing new challenges, it is important to build on our strengths, and to remind us that the demand of respect for the individual is shared by all,” Søvndal wrote.

This morning, Søvndal and Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt will be giving a joint lecture on EU foreign policy, focusing particularly on conflicts in the Middle East resulting from last year’s uprisings in the Arab world.

”The Arab spring is a key development – arguably the most important foreign policy development right now. Conditions have been difficult for democracy and fundamental human rights in a number of countries, and it is now important that Denmark and the international community should assist these countries in the far-reaching and difficult transitional phase,” Søvndal wrote ahead of the lecture.

Before the Lisbon Treaty was signed in 2009, meetings on EU foreign policy were chaired by the rotating presidency. These issues are now handled by the EU’s External Action Service EEAS, headed by Ashton.

Ashton will be chairing the meetings in Copenhagen over the weekend, though Søvndal maintains an important role, representing the EU on foreign policy issues in Brussels as well as abroad.

European environment ministers are also meeting in Brussels today to discuss the EU’s ambitious Low Carbon Roadmap for 2050, which calls for drastic cuts to carbon emissions in order to prevent global temperatures rising by more than two degrees celsius.

But Poland, which relies on coal for 90 percent of its electricity production, opposes the plan and blocked proposals to tighten the EU's carbon dioxide emissions targets last June.

"We cannot agree to anything that would directly or indirectly allow for higher emission reduction goals in the near future," an anonymous Polish government source told Reuters.

The Polish stance led the climate minister, Morten Lidegaard, to tell EU news website EurActiv that the negotiations were going to be tough.

 “The points of view differ a lot between the member states and it is going to be hard to compromise,” Lidegaard told EurActiv. “I think it will be a serious situation for Europe if we, for the second time, are not able to agree on climate policy that can send a clear signal to our industry, citizens and the rest of the world.”

Denmark has committed itself to its own tough carbon reduction plan that aims to phase out fossil fuels entirely by 2050.