John Kerry to attend EU ministerial in Vilnius

The State Department said the US would push to ease tensions over the South China Sea. Secretary of State John Kerry is due to arrive in Laos today, to mediate. [European Commission]

US Secretary of State John Kerry will discuss Syria, Egypt and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with European officials on a weekend trip to Vilnius, Paris and London, where he will see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the State Department said yesterday (5 September).

Kerry's trip comes as US President Barack Obama is trying to persuade the US Congress to authorise a limited military strike against Syria for its alleged use of sarin gas against its own people on 21 August.

Kerry is to leave today for the capital of Lithuania, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and is hosting a meeting of European Union foreign ministers with whom the US secretary of state will meet on Saturday.

Kerry and EU ministers plan to "discuss the Middle East, including Syria, Egypt, and the ongoing direct, final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Later on Saturday Kerry will travel to Paris to meet with senior French government officials and, on Sunday, to see representatives of the Arab League "follow-on" committee that is tracking efforts to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

While Psaki said the purpose of the meeting on Sunday was for Kerry to provide an update on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which resumed on 29 July after a nearly three-year hiatus, she said there was "no doubt" Syria would be discussed.

Then Kerry goes to London, where on Monday he will see British officials and meet Abbas, the Palestinian leader. A US official said Kerry would also meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "in the near future" but gave no details.

On Thursday in Vilnius, Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevi?ius met with the Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton. The meeting reportedly focused on the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The 6-7 September Gymnich-type informal meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Vilnius was reportedly planned to focus on Russia's bid to bloc Ukraine's ambitions to move closer to the European Union. Moreover, Russia increased its pressure on Moldova and convinced Armenia to join the Russia-led Customs Union, instead of concluding a free trade agreement with the EU.

The Kerry visit appears to have eclipsed those issues on the ministerial agenda. According to a communiqué, Linkevi?ius and Ashton agreed to further coordinate the cooperation in this area between the European External Action Service and Lithuania. The country hosts a summit of the Eastern Partnership on 28-29 November, where an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement is expected to be signed.

An association agreement between the EU and Ukraine was initialled more than a year ago and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) was agreed as well in principle.

However, the EU made their signature conditional on progress made in areas such as democratic and judicial reforms, including the release from prison of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

The draft agreement offers closer political and economic cooperation, but stops short of offering a path towards EU accession.

Ukraine hopes to sign the agreement at the 28-29 November Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Vilnius under the Lithuanian EU presidency.

Several EU leaders, especially from the former Soviet bloc countries, are pushing for a signature of the association agreement in Vilnius, out of geopolitical considerations.

Lithuania, which took over the rotating presidency on 1 July, puts high hopes on the summit's success.

  • 6-7 Sept.: Gymnich-type informal meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers, Vilnius
  • 28-29 Nov.: Eastern Partnership Summit, to be held in Vilnius under the Lithuanian EU presidency. Ukraine hopes to sign the agreement there.

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