By Roland Eggleston/Ahto Lobjakas
Prague, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder today said the European Union must strengthen its defense policy in the wake of the crisis over Iraq.
Speaking at the close of a European Union summit in Brussels, Schroeder said he welcomed a Belgian initiative to hold a top-level meeting on EU defense policy in Brussels among Germany, France, and Belgium.
He said the summit would initially involve the three countries as they have all floated similar ideas, but that it would not exclude others in the future or undermine NATO.
"It's not about excluding anyone from developing the ESDP [European Defense and Security Policy], that is not the point of this initiative. It's self-evidently open to anyone who wants to cooperate and join in as the debate unfolds. Secondly, properly understood it is about strengthening NATO through what is referred to as its 'European pillar,' this is therefore not an initiative against NATO," Schroeder said.
Schroeder also said it was right for the current summit in Brussels to circumvent differences over Iraq and concentrate instead on future plans.
Schroeder was referring to a joint document approved by EU leaders yesterday that addresses the future of Iraq, but also says the bloc's common foreign policy must be strengthened and calls for deeper dialogue with the United States.
Today's remarks follow strong criticism by Schroeder of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
In an address to the German people last night, Schroeder maintained his staunch opposition to the war. In a reference to the decision by U.S. President George W. Bush to begin hostilities without the support of the United Nations, the chancellor said the president had taken the wrong path. "The wrong decision has been made. The logic of war has won against the logic of peace and thousands of people will suffer terribly," Schroeder said.
But both Schroeder and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, have stressed that Germany is preparing to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of the war. "Of course Germany will not stand back when it comes to offering help. We are ready to provide humanitarian aid in co-operation with the United Nations. We are ready to help refugees with food, medicines and clothing. We are ready to offer medical help to wounded soldiers," Schroeder said.
The German Red Cross said earlier this week it was stockpiling medicines, drugs, and other medical aid to be sent to Iraq as soon as the war ends.
Schroeder did not mention German assistance in rebuilding Iraq after the war is over.
German officials have said previously that Germany will not help pay the costs of the war, as it did for the 1991 Gulf War when it contributed about $13.2 billion. Nor would it provide financial assistance for the reconstruction of bombed buildings. The UN Development Program recently estimated that reconstruction alone could cost about $10 billion a year over three years.
In his address, Schroeder sought to ease widespread concern in Germany that relations with the United States have been severely scarred by his refusal to support the war against Iraq. "The differences over the war are clear differences of opinion among governments, not deep-seated differences between friendly peoples. The substance of our relations with the United States of America is not endangered," Schroeder said.
Schroeder stressed that despite his government's hostility to the war, it was meeting its NATO commitments to another member, such as allowing the U.S. to make use of its air bases in Germany for transporting troops and equipment to the Persian Gulf. The U.S. also enjoys unrestricted overflight rights in Germany.