Sweden urges Syrian regime change as EU ministers meet in Brussels
A meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday was marked by a call from Sweden for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power - the most outspoken request to come so far from the bloc, DPA reported.
According to local rights groups, at least 1,800 civilians and security force members have been killed in Syria since a violent government crackdown on anti-Assad demonstrations began in March.
"The regime has to give way to a new regime, that's fairly obvious. This regime has run its course, it has lost the credibility and the legitimacy," Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters before meeting EU colleagues.
Other European representatives were slightly less direct.
"President Assad should reform or step aside," British Foreign Minister William Hague said, while EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton indicated that there was "growing concerns about levels of violence."
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger said the EU should appeal to Assad "in a stern tone" to start talks with the opposition.
Finland's Erkki Tuomoja said the Syrian president "should have at least a democratic mandate, which he is lacking today."
According to a draft circulating on Friday, EU ministers should approve a declaration noting that "by choosing a path of repression instead of fulfilling it own promises of broad reforms, the Syrian regime is calling into question its own legitimacy."
No decisions were expected Monday on a further tightening of EU sanctions, but Hague and Spindelegger warned they could be forthcoming.
While applying diplomatic pressure, EU countries have ruled out any military intervention in Syria. Ashton rejected suggestions that this represented double standards compared to Libya, where several European nations are taking part in NATO bombings.
"I think we have been as active as we can be" on Syria, she said.
Ministers were also expected to discuss the Middle East peace process, as plans by the Palestinians to seek United Nations recognition in September threaten to exacerbate tensions with Israel and the United States, splitting the EU in the process.
Last week the Quartet panel of international mediators - made up of the EU, US, Russia and UN - failed to agree on conditions for the restart of peace talks, which would convince Palestinians to renounce their UN recognition plan.
The EU should remain united because it is "perhaps the only constructive factor left when it comes to moving the peace process forward," given that "the Americans are in a different mood, they are heading to their election and have that particular focus," Bildt said.