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Europe gives mixed signals on Dalai Lama

March 9, 2009

By Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: March 9 2009

Europe’s ambiguity over Tibet was on clear display on Monday when Martti Ahtisaari, former Finnish president and head of a prestigious European think-tank, declined to endorse the idea of EU contacts with the Dalai Lama, even as the Italian parliament moved to express its support for the exiled Tibetan leader. Mr Ahtisaari said his think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations, did not have a position on EU dialogue with the Dalai Lama. He indicated he was not enthusiastic about such contacts.

Europe should not “overdo” some issues and needed to carry out a constant dialogue with China, he said, noting that Beijing had done “more than most” in reducing poverty and improving the well-being of its 1.3bn citizens. Mr Ahtisaari was in Rome to promote unified EU foreign policy through his think-tank, whose members include at least two serving European foreign ministers and 20 former ministers.

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mr Ahtisaari in 2008 and the Dalai Lama in 1989. Mr Ahtisaari said he made his “career talking to terrorists”, mentioning South Africa and Northern Ireland. The Dalai Lama was feted for his non-violent campaign to preserve Tibetan culture.

Hosting Mr Ahtisaari in Rome was Gianfranco Fini, speaker of the Italian parliament and head of the rightwing National Alliance in Italy’s governing coalition. He said he was willing to meet the Dalai Lama and spoke of his “political and cultural authority”, a description likely to enrage China.

Mr Fini also said Italy’s parliament would soon vote on a motion, submitted by all parties, declaring its sympathy and support for the Tibetan people. The motion also calls on the EU to open a dialogue with the exiled leader.

The EU declines to meet the Dalai Lama but calls on China to hold a dialogue with him. Javier Solana, EU foreign policy chief, has not met the Dalai Lama as this would confer political authority on him, a Brussels spokeswoman said.

Chinese threats and limited diplomatic reprisals against governments engaging with the Dalai Lama have had only partial success. In the last two years, the Dalai Lama has met Angela Merkel, German chancellor, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and George W. Bush, former US president. He was also hosted by the European parliament as a religious figure.

Mr Sarkozy’s meeting led Beijing to cancel a China-EU summit in December. Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, later excluded France from his European tour.

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