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EU: Foreign Policy-Makers Dither Over Bush's 'Axis Of Evil' Comments

U.S. President George W. Bush's reference to an "axis of evil," made up of states which sponsor terrorism, has caused quiet consternation in the European Union. The EU has long sought to "constructively engage" Iran and North Korea, which together with Iraq make up Bush's so-called "axis." Yet EU leaders appear to find it difficult to put their concerns into words.

Brussels, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although the European Union often asserts its desire for a greater global role, shapers of the bloc's foreign policy often appear unable to rise to the challenge if there's the slightest whiff of controversy about it.

Although the United States has for months now indicated it might take action against other countries it considers sponsors of terrorism once the anti-Taliban effort in Afghanistan winds down, the EU still appears to have been caught unawares by U.S. President George W. Bush's remarks on 29 January. The U.S. president said in his annual State of the Union speech that Iraq, Iran, and North Korea form an "axis of evil," developing weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States and the rest of the world.

Officials charged with shaping the EU's foreign policy are struggling to respond.

Last night (4 February), the EU's chief security policy coordinator, Javier Solana, ducked the issue, pleading incomprehension.

"I don't know. Everybody has different interpretations of what [an] 'axis of evil' means. In my own language, it's a statement which [would] not carry any meaning, but I understand that in the American language it may."

Yet as journalists have repeatedly reminded officials in Brussels in recent days, any U.S. military move against the "axis of evil" would have grave implications for the EU's policy of "constructive engagement." In recent months, the EU has indicated its readiness to extend cooperation with Iran and normalize ties with North Korea. Most EU members have expressed criticism of the UN sanctions regime imposed against Iraq.

A spokesman for EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, Gunnar Wiegand, said yesterday (4 February) that the commissioner considers differences of opinion among allies normal, and that in this case, he does not agree with U.S. policy.

"We do not use such words," Wiegand said, referring to Bush's "axis of evil" remark, adding that the EU believes "engagement and rapprochement" are better ways of influencing developments in countries like Iran and North Korea.

When pressed, security coordinator Solana appeared to support a similar view, at least with regard to Iran.

"To me, the important thing is [that] they're countries that do have -- some of them -- difficulties with the international community. It's obvious. And we would very much like, in particular with Iran, to try to see how we can deal with the most moderate forces and see how we can see Iran evolving in a possibly.... We know that it's a country that has problems and different positions sometimes, between the more moderate groupings and the less moderate groupings. We would like to see them moving in the right direction."

EU member capitals -- where for all intents and purposes most of the EU's "common foreign policy" is still made -- have mostly refrained from making direct comments.

Spain, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency and which sets much of the EU's agenda between January and June, has not issued a "presidency declaration" on the matter. "Presidency declarations" are normally the closest the EU comes to speaking in one voice in regional and global security policy.

However, AP reports that while addressing foreign journalists in Madrid last week, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar said he does not think the EU has anything to gain by "focusing on differences" or aggravating the United States.

Spain, which itself has long been battling extremism in the form of the Basque separatist group ETA, has made the fight against terrorism its pre-eminent presidential priority.