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EU: Member States Seek Common Stance On Iraq

European Union member states are adopting differing positions regarding a possible U.S.-led attack against Iraq, ranging from German and French opposition to Britain's support for unilateral action, if it comes to that. Amid an apparent polarization among the EU's larger states, many smaller EU countries have yet to express clear stances. But analysts say a divergence of opinion between the U.S. and the Europeans, on the one hand, and among EU states on the other, is an expression of democratic debate, and that European states will most likely end up adopting a common position.

Prague, 10 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Although all European Union members agree that Baghdad must allow the immediate return of United Nations weapons inspectors, they express different opinions regarding a possible U.S.-led attack against Saddam Hussein's regime.

Britain has been the most vocal critic of Iraq, and the country closest to the U.S. position. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking today at a trade-union conference in the city of Blackpool, said that while the UN is the most suitable forum for dealing with Baghdad, its authority has been challenged and weakened by Iraq's consistent refusal to observe its resolutions and permit the return of arms inspectors. "I believe that it is right to deal with Saddam through the United Nations. After all, it is the will of the United Nations that he has flouted. He -- not me, or George [W.] Bush -- is in breach of the United Nations resolutions. So if the challenge to us is to work with and through the United Nations, we will respond to it. But if we do so, then the challenge to all of us in the United Nations is this: The UN must be the way to resolve the threat from Saddam, not a way of avoiding it," Blair said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, meanwhile, ruled out any German participation in possible U.S. action against Iraq, even if such action has UN backing.

France, while not excluding the prospect of supporting a UN-backed military strike against Iraq, opposes unilateral U.S. action. French President Jacques Chirac has proposed a two-stage plan under which the UN could give Baghdad a three-week grace period to comply with UN resolutions. Failure to do so would prompt a UN resolution to use military force.

European Commission President Romano Prodi today warned against what he called unilateral action against Iraq. But Prodi, speaking on Portuguese television, admitted that the EU remains divided over how to deal with Saddam Hussein's regime.

In the absence of a unified EU position on the Iraq issue, most of the smaller EU states have adopted a cautious attitude, reiterating that while Iraq must observe UN resolutions, any action against Baghdad should also have a UN mandate.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose country is the current holder of the European Union's rotating presidency, has called for "maximum pressure" on Iraq to allow the return of UN weapons inspectors.

Rasmussen yesterday spoke on the phone with U.S. President George W. Bush, whom he told that the EU and Denmark are in favor of further UN moves to get Iraq to allow the resumption of weapons inspections.

Rasmussen also told Bush that he would back his bid "to rally international support at the UN to step up pressure on Iraq, notably to obtain unlimited and unconditional access of UN weapons inspectors."

A Danish diplomat told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity that Denmark and its Nordic neighbors, such as Sweden, which is not a NATO member, and Norway, which is not an EU member, have been holding consultations on the Iraqi issue.

Swedish Foreign Ministry official Gufran al-Nadaf, meanwhile, told RFE/RL that Sweden will follow UN resolutions regarding Iraq.

Belgium also said Iraq should accept the unconditional return of UN inspectors. But Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel today said Belgium is not in favor of unilateral action against Iraq. Belgian Foreign Ministry spokesman Didier Seeuw told RFE/RL that Brussels believes "there is still room for political solutions."

Seeuw, however, dismissed suggestions that different opinions among EU members, many of which are allies of the U.S. within NATO, mean they are split into two different camps. "I think it's a bit cliched to draw camps in the positions of the European allies. I see that there may be some divergence on how to get Iraq to accept UN resolutions, but on the goals, we're all united. We all think that Iraq should apply the UN resolutions unconditionally. We all agree on the basic fact that it should accept unconditionally the return of inspectors. So on the goals, there is no divergence of opinion. We still think that we should aim for a common European approach, and I see in most European reactions still a call for a UN-backed initiative," Seeuw said.

EU-affairs analyst Steven Everts of the London-based Centre for European Reform (CER) said that differences of opinion among EU members do exist. But Everts told RFE/RL that such differences are part of the democratic debate of EU foreign policy. "By all means, let's be critical of the Europeans, but let's also recognize that other countries, including the U.S., have their internal debates, and that's part of a democratic debate of a foreign-policy strategy. I think that the smaller member states will follow roughly the same sort of spectrum of opinion: some smaller countries like the Netherlands that are very much close to the British position that says that a UN mandate is desirable, but not strictly necessary, and might send troops or not, towards countries that will probably end up more on the German end of the spectrum," Everts said.

Indeed, differences can be detected in the degrees of vehemence EU members use to condemn Saddam Hussein's regime.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, for example, said yesterday that while being the last resort, force could be used against Iraq.

EU member Spain urged that "the path of diplomatic pressure must be fully exhausted" before any military action is contemplated. However, Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said that "if we want the United Nations to work, we must insist that its resolutions are respected."

Meanwhile, the U.S. is expected to continue to step up efforts to rally more international support against Iraq when President Bush delivers a speech on 12 September at the UN General Assembly. The assembly opens its 57th session today, a day before the one-year anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Everts said that Bush's efforts at convincing Washington's allies of the need for tough action against Baghdad come amid growing U.S.-European tensions. "We have a relatively tense phase in U.S.- European relations behind us, and my expectation is that also the months ahead will be relatively tense, will be a rocky ride. What connects all these various disputes -- and the [International Criminal Court] is just one example, we had other ones over [the] Kyoto [protocol], over the Johannesburg [UN sustainable-development] summit, over the ABM Treaty, the land mines, all these things -- what connects the dots is that on these international problems, the Europeans say, 'Well, the best way to tackle them is to work through international organizations, to set up international rules and norms and also enforcement mechanisms to make sure that these rules are implemented,'" Everts said.

Everts said that finding a common position between the EU and the U.S. on the Iraq issue will not be easy. But he said he expects the UN Security Council to come up with a unified approach in condemning Iraq's refusal to obey UN resolutions.