The first point I would like to stress is that the European Union position concerning the Palestinian refugee issue is very clear: there cannot be any just, lasting or comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East without a solution to the long-standing Palestinian refugee issue, which lies in the heart and core of the conflict in the Middle East. Although it is an issue the solution of which has to be negotiated and resolved directly by Israel and the Palestinians, it is indeed an issue with global consequences as it affects all countries with a Palestinian refugee population such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic and the Gulf countries, as well as the international community. We will all be involved in some way or the other. But - as many of the previous speakers have said - more than any other party, the refugees themselves will be affected. It is their future which is now being negotiated, and about to be decided.
Second, as far as the European Union has been told by the core parties, the refugee issue is now being negotiated in order to be included in the Framework Agreement together with all other outstanding issues such as Jerusalem, borders, security, settlements and water, the objective being to have not only a skeleton but a relatively comprehensive agreement although without any technical details. In the two rounds of talks, which so far have taken place in Bolling outside Washington, the involvement from outside has been limited but it will change in the third round of talks, with the US Government from now on being more actively involved. The European Union has expressed its willingness to be engaged, but only if the parties feel that such involvement is required and is regarded as an asset to the negotiations. Although information received on past talks indicates that the Israelis and the Palestinians are still far apart in their positions, the very fact and clear evidence on both sides of a serious willingness to continue talking makes the European Union quite optimistic. The prospect for a peace settlement seems now to be a realistic option. The parties have as their objective to conclude a Framework Agreement by the end of May, which puts a lot of pressure on them. An even more important timeline is September for the final agreement on permanent status. There are no easy solutions to any of the issues. Both sides will have to make difficult and painful concessions. It might be less problematic when it comes to some of the issues, but with the highly emotional issue of refugees, it will be extremely hard for the parties to find one - for all parties - acceptable political solution. However, the complexity of the issue cannot and should not prevent the parties from starting their elaborations.
Third, it should be said that the European Union has a high stake in a just and lasting peace in the Middle East for its own reasons. It is therefore more than willing not only to help promote a sustainable outcome of the ongoing talks, but also to assist in making peace a reality once the parties have reached a settlement. The European Union is preparing itself for such times as it wants to be ready to respond to requests from the parties and to be able to meet the needs of the region. It is for those reasons that the European Union at present is working on a paper in which it is identifying its own interest in the region, is drawing up its own vision of the future and is going to propose a set of recommendations or guidelines that could constitute a possible European contribution to peace in the Middle East. The European Union does know very well that making peace demands more than just resolving conflicts of the past. What the European Union foresees is that peace accords, signed by the parties, will require a close follow-up and certain political guarantees in order to be fully implemented.
As my fourth point I would like to mention that the European Union already has taken strong political and economic responsibility for the Palestinian refugees. There are five areas of European Union input which I would like to emphasize:
1. As I have already said, the European Union has expressed its readiness to contribute to the permanent status negotiations by offering specific suggestions to the parties on related issues such as possible Palestinian statehood, borders, security arrangements, settlements, Jerusalem, water and, not least, refugees. The European Union does so not having any intention to predetermine the direct negotiations between the parties, but simply to be ready to be useful at the right time. With that objective the EUSE has established two informal task forces, one on water and the other on refugees, which group together representatives from the 15 member States. They meet regularly to develop and coordinate practical European Union inputs and aim to play a catalyst role. Different studies have been initiated in order to define and develop creative ideas and expertise for the benefit of the parties.
2. The European Union is the main collective donor to UNRWA. The European Union is well aware of the political and humanitarian importance and necessity of continuing to give economic and political support to UNRWA as long as the refugee issue is not solved and for some time thereafter. The refugees must be guaranteed such support from the international community as long as there are refugees in need. Improving the currrent living conditions of refugees in Lebanon is a must.
3. The European Union strongly supports the Canadian Gavel-holder's efforts to maintain activity in the Refugee Working Group. The Ministerial Steering Committee meeting in Moscow a few months back was seen as a revival of the multilateral process. The European Union would like the meeting to be followed up at least on a working level. The European Union is charged with a particular responsibility for the promotion of regional economic development, as the shepherd for economic and social infrastructure. The European Union is considering organizing a workshop later this year to follow up recent work and studies on the refugee issue.
4. The European Union has a strong record in supporting different people-to-people activities in Gaza and the West Bank. This programme should be encouraged to involve more activities in which there is a participation from the refugees themselves but also other groups in society in order to break down taboos and widen the knowledge of refugees and their background, particularly in Israel. Bringing people together on concrete activities is essential in order to achieve change.
5. The European Union strongly supports seminars and workshops involving professionals which can, apart from increasing international awareness of the refugee problem, also contribute with new ideas and present intelligent ways of building bridges between countries and people. Much work has been done, but more is needed.
It is evident for all of us gathered here that there is an urgent need to solve the long-standing Palestinian refugee issue. It has been with us for more than 50 years. The European Union realizes that for the Palestinians as a people, a just solution for their plight and suffering is a condition sine qua non in order to achieve a real lasting peace. The European Union will support a political solution to the refugee problem to be negotiated and agreed by the two parties - Israel and the Palestinians - on the basis of international legality and in the context of United Nations resolutions such as 194 (III).
In conclusion, the European Union has an important role to play in the peace process, which is acknowledged by all parties. The European Union is willing to assume its responsibility and is preparing itself to act swiftly to support the consolidation of peace in the region. The European Union believes that a settlement of the issue of refugees will have to take account of the new realities of the situation of refugees since 1948, in particular the political, demographic and economic changes affecting the countries and populations concerned. The European Union is aware that a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East will come with a "hefty price tag". However, the European Union would like to stress that there might be hesitation from the international community to pay for everything connected with and included in the peace accords. Financial resources might not come forward as expected due to donor fatigue and for other reasons.
On a more personal note, I would like to say that it is my belief - and here I echo the voice of some other speakers - that the individual refugee must personally feel the benefits of any solution whether it comes in the form of return, compensation, rehabilitation or resettlement. To cite Mr. Dag Hammarskjöld, the former United Nations Secretary-General, in one of his books: "A solution forced on the refugees against their will, will not lead to a lasting peace." That remark, from 50 years ago, is just as relevant today.