The foreign ministers of several EU members say that will consider taking prisoners released from Guantanamo Bay, provided that the United States can prove to a degree of absolute certainty that they are not dangerous. 

Shawn Pogatchnik for AP:

European Union leaders said Monday they are willing to take prisoners being released from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay — but only after detailed screening to ensure they don’t import a terrorist. Foreign ministers from the 27-nation bloc discussed the fate of up to 60 Guantanamo inmates who, if freed, cannot be returned to their homelands because they would face abuse, imprisonment or death. The prisoners come from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Afghanistan, Chad, China, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, whose nation played a lead role in Monday’s discussions on Guantanamo, said the European Commission will draft a formal plan in coming weeks defining a common course for EU members to pursue with the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama. In his first week in office, Obama ordered Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba to be closed within a year. Kouchner said the European plan was likely to include a formal EU request for legal and security experts to visit the prison — and interview potential immigrants about where they wanted to resettle and why.

But Kouchner said Europe still had far too many unanswered questions to commit to accepting any particular prisoners. He said the U.S. and EU had yet to nail down whether prisoners would be legally treated as refugees or asylum-seekers, whether they would face heavy security restrictions in their new homes — and whether some prisoners were simply too dangerous to come to Europe at all.  “Yes, of course this is risky,” Kouchner told The Associated Press in an interview. “So we have to think about each case, and not to accept anything or anyone easily. It will be a long process.” He said France would accept released prisoners “under extreme, precise conditions only.” “Legally this is difficult. Each of the 27 nations, they have different positions and different legal frameworks to accept or to refuse such people,” he said.

While the French appeared keen to press other EU members on the issue, their successors as EU president — the Czechs — admitted that most nations were hoping to minimize their involvement with Guantanamo’s homeless. “Nobody is hot about it, that’s perfectly true,” said Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, referring to Monday’s informal lunchtime talks about taking Guantanamo prisoners. “We have to clear (up) a lot of things with the other side, too,” he said, referring to the Obama administration.


Some EU foreign ministers said their own countries — long critical of the Bush administration’s operation of Guantanamo — would be accused of hypocrisy if they didn’t take at least one ex-prisoner and were seen to be helping Obama with the shutdown. “There is no question that chief responsibility to do with solving the problem of this detention center lies with those who set it up, the Americans themselves,” said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “But it is also a question of our credibility — of whether we support the dismantling of this American camp or not.”

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain had its plate full in dealing with its own nationals in U.S. custody and ruled out taking ex-prisoners from other nations. He said Britain had already taken nine British nationals and three foreigners who have British residency rights, while the cases of two others still in Guantanamo were being processed. “We feel that is already a significant contribution,” Miliband said. “We’re happy to offer our experience to other European countries, as they think about what steps they want to make, to help in the closure of Guantanamo Bay.”

Finland’s foreign minister, Alexander Stubb, emphasized the widespread view that the U.S. administration was not yet in position to clear any terror suspects. “We are jumping the gun here a little bit, because the Americans haven’t given us an offer or required us to take anyone on board,” Stubb said.

These objections illustrate the complexity of the situation.  While there is almost universal agreement that locking up accused terrorists indefinitely without due process is unacceptable, it’s also the case that no democratic leader wants the responsibility of housing potential terrorists in their own country.  Further, given the dubious nature of the human intelligence available, ascertaining whether a given prisoner is really a member of al Qaeda or otherwise dangerous is incredibly difficult.  To say nothing of the fact that, even if a given prisoner was not a likely candidate for terrorist activity when captured, several years of being locked up by Americans and treated as a terrorist may have changed their attitude.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.