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Iraq: EU Agrees On A 'Lowest-Common-Denominator' Approach

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Confounding skeptics, European Union foreign ministers yesterday negotiated one of the most treacherous obstacles in the path of the bloc's fledgling foreign policy and agreed a common line on Iraq. However, yesterday's position does not appear to address the central points of contention behind the split within the EU and may prove a poor guide for concerted action in the coming days.

Brussels, 28 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Although unable to turn its vaunted common foreign policy into anything resembling a success, the European Union is nevertheless becoming quite adept at forever staving off its collapse by means of what can only be described as a policy of attrition.

Whenever discord threatens, the bloc's foreign-policy makers resort with increasing confidence to parading lowest-common-denominator positions as consensus, saving face and allowing it to put off difficult decisions for a few more days or weeks.

Many observers predicted that the differences on Iraq are too deep to allow reconciliation and would fatally damage the common project. Yet, a "common position" emerged from yesterday's talks.

First, the EU's Greek Presidency persuaded the four EU members on the UN Security Council -- Britain, France, Germany, and Spain -- to endorse a general list of principles, which a senior Greek official on 24 January described as merely "food for thought."

Then the compromise was presented to the remaining 10 EU governments, which they evidently did not have much difficulty endorsing.

Presenting the common position to journalists, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou was clearly keener on dwelling on its objectives than the methods required to achieve them. "I believe that our conclusions today are a solid basis for constructive, creative and concerted effort for a way forward, where our objective remains full disarmament, total cooperation of Iraq, [and the] peaceful resolution of the UN process, which is a possibility," he said.

Papandreou stressed that the onus remains on Iraq, but made clear that the EU still believes war can be averted if Saddam Hussein's government is sufficiently cooperative.

Papandreou said he expects the four EU members on the UN Security Council -- veto holders France and Britain, as well as rotating members Germany and Spain -- to coordinate their actions in the future on the basis of yesterday's consensus.

Yet, Papandreou conceded that the common position does not address the central issues behind the clear divisions between Britain and Spain, who are supportive of the tough U.S. line against Iraq, and antiwar Germany and France. The position merely says the EU supports an extension of the UN inspectors' mandate in Iraq, but does not say by how long, nor whether a second UN resolution is necessary to decide on war.

Papandreou said it is neither the right time nor the EU's role to pronounce on either issue, seeming to imply both should be left to the UN Security Council -- and by extension that EU countries on the Security Council must make their own decisions when it comes to it. "Of course, [UN Security Council Resolution] 1441 does not give a specific time frame [for the inspectors' mandate], and I think we would be out of order if we in the European Union tried to make this somewhat arbitrary judgement. Secondly, a second [UN] resolution. Again, I think we'd be jumping the gun. We haven't reached that point," Papandreou said.

To be fair, Papandreou was speaking before chief weapons inspector Hans Blix gave the UN Security Council his report yesterday on whether Iraq has complied with the first resolution.

Hence, he said, the EU must "closely follow" the developments of the next few days, among them discussions in the Security Council today, the State of the Union address of U.S. President George W. Bush, also today, and the meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on 31 January.

However, on first impression, the "wait-and-see" approach is not likely to make decisions easier for the EU. Reacting to the assessment of Blix yesterday that Iraq had not fully cooperated with UN inspectors, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer appeared to toughen the U.S. stance, saying Iraq must comply "in all regards," and that if the "answer is only partially yes, the answer is 'no.'"

Attempting to divert criticism, Papandreou repeatedly emphasized the fact that yesterday's consultations between an EU Presidency and member states on the UN Security Council were the first of their kind. He said consultations of this type would from now on become the norm, adding that candidate country Bulgaria -- currently a nonpermanent member of the Security Council -- would also be "closely" involved.