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EU: Monthly Meeting Of Foreign Ministers Attempts To Settle Differences Over Iraq

EU foreign ministers are in Brussels today and tomorrow to conduct their first monthly meeting this year. EU sources say they will attempt to work out a common position on Iraq, although officials and observers alike remain pessimistic that the member states can overcome their deep divisions.

Brussels, 27 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hours before chief United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix presents his report to the UN Security Council in New York today, the four EU countries on the council -- together with the bloc's current president, Greece -- are making a last-gasp effort to agree on a common EU line on Iraq.

The chances of reconciliation between staunch U.S. allies Britain and Spain on the one hand, and war opponents France and Germany on the other appear slim.

France, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, continues to insist that a war against Iraq is not inevitable, although President Jacques Chirac said last week a final decision had not been made. French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told French television yesterday that weapons inspections should continue for several weeks or a few months.

Germany, which is not a permanent member of the Security Council, but is acting as its chairman in February, has ruled out participation in any military action.

Officials from the EU's current Greek presidency acknowledged on 24 January that the fact that the meeting with the four countries takes place before Blix's report could be a "problem," but said it was necessary for the presidency to know where everyone stands before a lunchtime discussion involving all 15 EU member states.

Media reports suggest that Britain and Spain stand alone in their view that a second UN resolution is not necessary to attack Iraq. Germany and France are at the other extreme, opposing war more or less under any circumstances, while the rest say the UN must decide.

EU officials say if a consensus does emerge among the EU 15, it will probably express a preference for action via the United Nations, saying weapons inspections are an important "means of containment." Iraq would also be told to "seize the opportunity" and cooperate "positively" -- that is, go beyond the present "open-doors" policy and initiate more proactive cooperation.

AFP reported that the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said in Washington yesterday he believes Hans Blix may ask the Security Council for more time to conclude weapons inspections, and that the request would be supported by the EU. In a sign that an extension to the inspectors' mandate could be one way of avoiding an immediate damaging split within the EU, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the BBC yesterday that inspections should be extended in order to clearly determine whether Iraq is cooperating sufficiently.

EU officials said on 24 January that the bloc's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, also supports extending the inspectors' mandate and holds the view that the Security Council should decide whether to attack Iraq.

The European Commission is drawing up contingency plans to provide postconflict aid to Iraq, and Patten suggested two weeks ago many EU member states would find it difficult to finance the operation without a second UN resolution.

The main EU discussion of Iraq will take place over lunch today. The lunchtime discussion will also broach the situation in the Middle East. Officials say the EU is likely to welcome Israel's decision to restart monthly payments to the Palestinian Authority. Although the EU sees the decision as "tentative," the bloc is said to be ready to "transform" its own controversial direct budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority into "more traditional" forms of aid.

Another major topic of the foreign ministers' meeting today and tomorrow is the future of the Western Balkans. A closed session today will be followed by a public debate tomorrow, with the latter focusing on the EU's long-term engagement in the region. A Greek "position paper" to be presented tomorrow will underline that the five countries in the region will eventually become members of the EU, "depending on their performance."

Finally, the meeting in Brussels will also debate whether, and at what level, an EU mission to North Korea might be necessary as part of the international effort to defuse the country's nuclear program.

Although officials say the EU has never "pretended to be a major player" in the region, it appears North Korea views the EU as a potential neutral mediator. They say South Korea, backed to a lesser degree by Japan and Russia, has also warmed to the idea of EU involvement.