September 4, 2009 / 5:08 PM / in 10 years

EU close to agreeing offer to Syria on ties

STOCKHOLM, Sept 4 (Reuters) - The European Union is close to agreeing an offer to Syria of closer ties, the 27-country bloc’s commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said on Friday.

An association agreement between Syria and the EU has been held up by Dutch concerns about the Middle Eastern country’s human rights record.

"Engaging with Syria is absolutely in our interest," Ferrero-Waldner told journalists at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Stockholm.

"I would say that we are coming to an agreement. There are still some modalities that have to be found, there are some reserves ... but I am confident that in the near future we will get this agreement really going."

A rapprochement could help liberalise Syria’s economy and improve its image after being treated as a pariah state by several Western countries because of its role in Lebanon and Iraq and support for militant groups.

Similar deals have been signed between the EU and Arab countries and between the EU and Israel.

Ferrero-Waldner said the EU should keep Syria’s actions under scrutiny, but should also encourage the country to respect human rights, the rule of law and to be a positive influence in the Middle East.

She said an agreement would not only set out a framework for cooperation but would also contain a number of obligations.

"In my view it is certainly not a gift if we give that to Syria, but it is a possibility for a contractual agreement with Syria, so I am very much in favour and I do hope this will go on." (Reporting by Simon Johnson; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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