By Ahto Lobjakas/Kathleen Knox
The 13 European Union candidate countries today endorsed the bloc's common position on Iraq that was unveiled yesterday. Most candidate representatives expressed chagrin over accusations made by French President Jacques Chirac last night that the candidates had behaved "childishly" in supporting the tough U.S. line on Iraq. However, no one predicted long-term damage to the enlargement process, and the comments were generally felt to be a corollary of the "tensions" within the EU itself over the past few weeks.
Brussels/Prague, 18 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The 13 European Union candidate countries today endorsed the bloc's common line on Iraq that was agreed upon at yesterday's emergency summit in Brussels.
Although expected, the decision did not come wholly without hiccups. The candidates were twice publicly snubbed by the EU, first when they were not invited to attend the summit proper and a second time last night when French President Jacques Chirac said the Eastern European candidates had behaved like "badly brought-up" children when they flocked to support the aggressive U.S. stance on Iraq.
Reaction to Chirac's comments was clearly on most reporters' minds today, and all candidate governments had prepared carefully balanced responses.
Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz offered what can be described as a fair reflection of most candidates' views. Refusing to denounce the comments outright, he took the opportunity to stress that the candidates expect to be treated by the EU as equal partners. "We, of course, respect the right shared by France to present its opinion, to define and adopt its own policy, to really be living in true partnership. We expect the same on our side. We expect respect for the same rights shared by Poland and other countries. We believe that everything that happened in the last weeks was a difficult search for unity in Europe," Cimoszewicz said.
Cimoszewicz added that the last few months had seen too much "emotional rhetoric" not only in Europe but across the Atlantic. He added that such rhetoric "leads us nowhere."
He also expressed the hope that Chirac's comments were not meant to "mix" enlargement with differences of opinion between the candidates and some EU member states.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld today said Chirac's comments were "harmful and unnecessary" and said France should respect Poland's foreign-policy decisions.
Latvian Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete noted that the EU is a union of equal states where everyone's opinions are respected and that it is precisely such a union Latvia seeks to join.
Slovenian officials described Chirac's comments as "unusual" and said the country regrets they were made in the first place but put them at the same time down to the wider tensions within the EU.
Estonian Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland adopted one of the toughest stances today, saying Estonia should not be seen as a "punching bag," asserting that, although the country aims at EU membership, it also proceeds from its own national interests, one of the most important of which is the preservation of trans-Atlantic ties.
No candidate professed having any problems with signing up to the EU's position on Iraq. Poland's Cimoszewicz, representing the largest accession country and also one of the staunchest U.S. allies in Europe, said it "fully expresses" the Polish position. He said Poland is satisfied to note that the EU criticizes Iraq for its long list of breaches of international law and that the bloc considers Iraq a threat and demands its immediate disarmament but also that the United Nations is given what Cimoszewicz described as a "major role" in the crisis.
Adhering to both the EU and U.S. positions simultaneously is somewhat more difficult for the EU candidate members among the "Vilnius 10" group, which two weeks ago signed the strongest declaration of support for the U.S. line to date. In their declaration, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania stated that Iraq is already in "material breach" of UN Resolution 1441 -- a charge also made by the United States -- whereas yesterday's EU common position makes it clear that such decisions fall within the purview of the United Nations.
In Slovakia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel said Chirac's criticisms should also have been addressed to EU members like Britain, Portugal, or Spain, which share Slovakia's views. "The criticism, in our view, is not completely justified. We think it's too harsh. Candidate countries didn't have the opportunity to join in this EU joint declaration, and Slovakia actually has the same or similar views on this as Britain, Italy, or Portugal, who are part of the EU," Gandel said.
The Slovak prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, also defended Slovakia's right to speak out. But he added that he has "the best of relations with Mr. Chirac."
Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase played down Chirac's remarks, saying the French president's real target was the United States. "Every time I have a dispute with my wife," Nastase said, "I shout at my sons."
But Romania's president, Ion Iliescu, said Chirac's comments were unfortunate. "We think it is unwise -- and this has been done before several times -- to separate the East European states into pro-American and anti-American. Such a perspective is totally wrong, and it would be unfortunate to create, in a tense moment like this one, a divide between the European Union and the trans-Atlantic community," Iliescu said.
Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Lubomir Ivanov said Chirac's outburst could further divide the UN Security Council, where Bulgaria -- as a nonpermanent member -- has backed Washington's hard line against Iraq.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said Chirac's remarks "require no comment --- one should not overreact." But he also said Bulgaria would not change its position under pressure from France. "It is pointless to speak about change in the Bulgarian position on Iraq. Everyone has read the statement of our [Bulgarian] representative to the UN about our standpoint," Saxecoburggotski said.
Chirac's comments came too late for press commentary in the region, but there were some lively comments posted on Internet discussion forums.
"What else can you expect from the French," asked one Czech. "At least it's clear what awaits us once we join the EU 'family' -- we'll have to shut up and stay in line. But is it worth it?"
"Dear Mr. Chirac," said one Slovak, "I think it's escaped your notice that we are not your colony. What [do you have to say] about Britain, Italy, Spain, and Portugal?"