EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels today held preliminary talks on informal calls from Washington to grant asylum to as many as 60 Guantanamo inmates against whom America has insufficient evidence to prosecute, but who cannot be sent back to their own countries once Guantanamo closes, for fear of torture and persecution.
The UK is the only country to have accepted back any inmates so far, and remains reluctant to take any with no UK links.
That leaves pressure on other member states to back their words of welcome for President Barack Obama’s decision to close the detention centre with action to grant asylum to some of the 250 still being held.
The governments of Portugal, France, Germany, Ireland and Sweden have indicated readiness to consider resettling Guantanamo inmates, but the Dutch government has been most outspoken against doing so – arguing that Washington opened the camp and should take responsibility for those it incarcerated.
The issue is seen as an early test of the EU’s pledge to forge a closer US relationship.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for an EU delegation to go to Washington to establish full details of the detainees the US does not intend to put through the American courts, but who cannot be sent back to their own countries on humanitarian grounds.
One concern is that, according to US Defence Department estimates, about 61 of the 500 detainees released from Guantanamo by the Bush administration have “returned to the battlefield” – including some who were not active militants before they were taken to Guantanamo Bay.
And those EU countries not prepared to take in any “non-nationals” from Guantanamo were reminded today of the precedent set by the Church of the Nativity siege in Bethlehem in 2002.
After the siege ended, 13 Palestinian gunmen were taken in by Belgium, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Portugal as part of an EU-brokered peace deal.