The European Union remains undecided on the issue of taking in former prisoners from the anti-terror prison at Guantanamo Bay. At a luncheon for the EU foreign ministers on Monday, the topic was discussed but no solution was reached. Germany, France and a number of other countries are at least open to the possibility.
After the luncheon, Austria was the only country that still flatly rejected the idea, while all other countries said that they wanted to wait for a formal request from the United States.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD) defended his call to aid Washington. "We could do without taking in the prisoners," said Steinmeier, who will be his party's candidate for chancellor in this year's national election. But he also said that the decision on whether or not to back the efforts of the US to close the camp was a "question of credibility." Steinmeier received support for this position from Luxembourg and Finland.
Earlier, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana also showed a willingness to accept the former prisoners. "This is an American problem and they have to solve it, but we'll be ready to help, if necessary" he said in Brussels shortly before the gathering in Berlin. He pointed out that it was up to each individual EU member to decide, but he thought that the answer would be yes.
"Case by Case"
The French are already thinking one step further. Paris has presented a concrete organizational blueprint for taking in former prisoners. This plan would call for a "case-by-case" and "country-by-country" approach, with each land deciding whether it would accept former inmates, and which ones. At issue are 60 people who have been cleared for release after the US military classified them as innocent.
In a second step, an EU clearing authority would conduct a detailed evaluation of each case. Experts from the intelligence and security agencies in each country would review the American files, compare this with their own information and issue an assessment on any possible security risk. Only then could a decision be made on whether to take in a particular former detainee, and which country would accept him.
That plan may look good on paper, but it remains to be seen whether it can be implemented. A number of US officials who were stationed at Guantanamo in the past have reported that the military keeps absolutely chaotic records. In some cases, the documents contain nothing more than abstract notes. This would make it impossible for EU experts to conduct a meaningful evaluation.
An initial impression of what the EU can expect has been provided by papers released from Guantanamo that describe the cases of hundreds of prisoners. For the most part, these consist of single, standard letter-size pieces of paper, with plenty of small print and vague allegations, many of which have been blacked out. But, perhaps worst of all, it is totally unclear from these documents which US agency provided the evidence in the first place.
Everyone Accepted Could Freely Move throughout EU
The idea from France, however, should at least defuse the debate in Germany and, more importantly, ease the concerns of German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU). After making a number of harsh comments, Schäuble now says that he wouldn't say no if the US asked for help. In the event of a request, he insists that each case should be meticulously vetted -- and this is precisely the logical approach that the French plan proposes.
At the same time, the plan underscores divisions within the EU. While most countries are still debating the issue on a theoretical level, often disregarding the facts, Paris has proposed concrete steps. The French and the Germans have apparently grasped more quickly than other countries the importance of demonstrating to the new US administration a readiness to act and a willingness to cooperate -- instead of engaging in further EU internal squabbling.
An EU-wide, coordinated approach is necessary because border regulations make it impossible for each individual country to address the issue totally on its own. Released detainees would be granted refugee status by their host EU countries. Once this is done, they would be free to move unchecked throughout the Schengen area, where there are no border checks between countries. Even if some EU members refused to take them in, the former prisoners from Guantanamo would have no problems entering any particular country (except for the five EU states that have not implemented Schengen).
This explains why France is pouring on the pressure. Already in the run-up to the summit, Paris was pushing for the EU to tackle the problem instead of just talking about it. "We have to know who exactly we are talking about," said an EU diplomat. This is precisely why EU Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security Jacques Barrot and EU counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerckhove plan to travel to Guantanamo to talk with military officials.
A Symbolically Important Trip
It is still unclear when this trip will take place. The offices of these top EU officials have been trying since late last week to establish contact with their American counterparts. Although the US is without a doubt ready to accept such a mission, it will take a number of days to finalize the logistical details.
Nonetheless, the trip to Guantanamo would be a symbolically important step for the EU -- but only an initial one. Diplomats say that afterwards security experts would definitely have to examine each individual case. In Germany, intelligence agencies would form a task force consisting of experts from Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's federal police, the BKA -- which is the equivalent of the FBI in the US -- and Germany's foreign intelligence service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND).
The debate in Germany is frequently animated by pithy slogans, usually led by domestic politicians at the state level and marked by squabbling in the coalition government in Berlin between Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU and the center-left SPD -- and it often shows a total disregard for the facts. Foreign Minister Steinmeier has been repeatedly criticized for racing ahead with an offer -- although no official request has yet been made by the US. This also remains the position taken by the German government, which says that it intends to "react" to such requests.
From an official perspective, this may seem like a correct position. But pragmatists like Steinmeier have known for months that the US will approach Europe on this issue. Shortly before the US elections, leading members of the Obama team spoke with a delegation from Steinmeier's Foreign Ministry and left little doubt about the intentions of the new administration. "We will need your help," said a man who is now a high-ranking official in the US government. Similar unofficial requests have also been received by the other EU countries over the past months.
Late last week, a spokesman for the Pentagon who is responsible for the prisoners confirmed the intentions of the US. Over the past few years, says Jeffrey D. Gordon, the US has spoken "with over 100 countries" concerning the transfer of former detainees -- yet not always with success. "We are hopeful the recent discussions with partner nations, particularly in Europe, will lead to help solve this shared problem."
Waiting for Munich
That's about as clear a signal as one can get that the US would like to see a rapid and focused debate within the EU. Not surprisingly, Steinmeier's indication that he is willing to help has been well received by the US Defense Department. As early as the next meeting at the ministerial level, perhaps at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 6-8, diplomats expect that the US will officially submit a request to Europe. That doesn't leave much time to prepare a European reaction.
The Pentagon has also openly answered the questions asked time and again by Germany and the EU -- namely, which prisoners the US intends to set free. All heated debates in Europe aside, there is little doubt about this in the US: The Americans are trying to find solutions for 60 prisoners. All these cases have been reviewed by the military over the past few years and the inmates are cleared for release.
But there's just one catch: Either their home countries don't want to take them in, or they could face torture. Some prisoners also don't want to return home because they fear reprisals.
According to military sources in the US, the 60 men, whose release has sparked such intense debate in Europe, come from China, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Algeria, Tunisia and Yemen.