Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Parliament looks at stakes and political context of EU-Syria association agreement

Agence Europe - 2 April 2005

Should the association agreement between the EU and Syria be exploited, made subject to conditions or simply deferred till a later date? This was the question put by MEPs from the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the human rights sub-committee during a hearing at the European Parliament. On Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, some felt that the agreement with Syria should be signed to accompany democratic changes while others preferred to use it as a means to put pressure on the Damascus authorities so that they undertake reforms before going any further.

Faïçal Kalthoum, Chairman of the Constitutional and Legislation Committee of the Assembly of the People of Syria, called on MEPs to be patient towards his country as “it takes time to build a regime that meets European criteria”. He nonetheless said that “in the next two months”, Syria will have a multi-party political system, will adopt electoral laws and guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the press. Calling on the EU to sign the association agreement, he said that “pressure paralyses reform”. Such changes are considerable and Antoine Sfeir, lead writer of the Cahiers de l'Orient, can hardly believe they have taken place. He says it is necessary to follow things through on the ground and feels certain that the situation will not have changed a great deal some time hence. Spanish Socialist Carlos Carnero Gonzalez, however, was keen to look at this with “an open mind” as the signing of the agreement would be “the proof that the Barcelona process is still on track”.

While the current ambassador of Syria with the EU, Toufik Salloum, and his successor, Badi Khattabl, were expected at the forum, their absence in the end did not come as a “surprise” for Véronique de Keyser. The Belgian Socialist, who is rapporteur on this subject, explained this defection by their refusal to sit in the same room as the leader of the Syrian Reformist Party, Farid Ghadry. Fearing that the reforms announced were “just empty promises”, the latter urged the EU to postpone the association agreement with Syria. According to Ghadry, Syria's attitude is “all take but no give”. In his view, in order to benefit from the agreement, Damascus should “immediately” do away with the State of Emergency (established on 8 March 1963). In response to Miguel Portas (GUE-NGL, Portugal), who asked whether Ghadry was “the White House spokesman”, the opposition representative said that the reformist party had been set up by the United States “on a temporary basis” and was “pacifist”. Speaking to EUROPE, Ghadry gave his assurance that his party did not enjoy any US public funding and that its funds mostly come from Syrian industrialists. British Conservative Charles Tannock, who signs up to the White House position towards Syria, believes an agreement with Syria is out of the question if Syria supports terrorist organisations.

On Thursday, those taking part in the discussion sought to assess the advantages that the association agreement would have for the people of Syria, and called for the association agreement to be used in the most effective way to support human rights. Rudolph El Kareh, sociologist and political pundit at University Paris II, reiterated his call made the day before for “an autonomous representation and vision” of the EU, independent of that of the United States, allowing for the “Barcelona Process to be boosted”. He took a stance against exploitation of the association agreement and called on the EU to “focus on all the countries of the region”. It is necessary to be “credible”, by not applying a “double standards” policy, by working with the long term in mind, and especially with an international conference on issues such as the US presence in Iraq, Palestine and the democratisation of these States, he added.

The chairman of the committees for defence of democratic rights and human rights in Syria, Aktham Naisse, presented a very critical view of the human rights situation under the Bachar Al-Asssad regime. He denounced arbitrary arrest, torture, the disappearance of thousands of persons and the fact that no human rights association is allowed legal existence. This list was followed up by Neil Sammonds, of Amnesty International, who added violations against women, the Kurd minorities (representing between 7% and 10% of the Syrian population) and political prisoners in particular. In his view, the association agreement would have the advantage of providing surveillance mechanisms, but it is above all a priority to repeal the discriminatory legislation, the death penalty and the military courts. Wahid Al-Asma, of the Solida movement, mainly hoped as a preamble to the ratification process of the agreement that the Commission would call upon Damascus to make “a real and human gesture” on the question of the forced disappearances of Lebanese and Syrian nationals held by the regime. Europeans must take a “political decision” on a “give-give” basis, he stressed, as there is “no need for years of reform” for making some changes. Given the “manipulating and deceitful” government, Naisse also called for changes “at once, before the association agreement is signed”. He also asked the EU to deal directly with the “organisations that do not come under the government”, in support of the “nascent democratic forces in Syria”.

In the opinion of Michael Gahler (PPE-DE, Germany), the “four minimum conditions” necessary for an agreement have to do with freedom of the press, political parties, political prisoners and rights for the Kurdish minority. The French socialist Pierre Schapira on the other hand warned against strict condition on the agreement, pointing out that “isolation is the worst” of the choices to be made. Following the discussions, Ms de Keyser said she was troubled by the attitude of the Syrians, which consisted of “denying the problems”, and by the “opaque conditions” for the current dialogue. She proposes to draw up “a very precise list of the problems” in order to increase transparency. This is a document that the President of the sub-committee on human rights Hélène Flautre (Greens-ALE, France) wanted to present to actors from civil society before the Parliament gives its definitive opinion.