Brussels, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- First reactions coming from European Union foreign ministers discussing Iraq ahead of a summit dinner tonight have been surprisingly conciliatory. Although many observers have predicted a highly "combustible" summit, the bloc's foreign ministers have so far sought to downplay their differences, and there is some evidence for a genuine narrowing of short-term differences.
It appears that last weekend's antiwar demonstrations, the size of which were unprecedented in the history of many European capitals, have taken some of the wind out of the sails of Britain and other supporters of the tough line of the United States.
The 14 February report to the United Nations Security Council by chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has also been assessed by most diplomats and observers as being a boost for efforts to delay war.
Thus, Britain's foreign minister, Jack Straw, although warning that Iraq is not in sufficient compliance with UN Resolution 1441, today avoided talk of immediate deadlines for Iraq. "Dr. Blix did note some improved cooperation [by Iraq] on process. He noted no cooperation on substance, and there wasn't a single member of the Security Council around the room last Friday [14 February] who suggested otherwise. So time is running out for Iraq," Straw said.
Although diplomats note there is no "middle ground" between the six EU countries that largely support war and the nine that oppose it, the possibility of a short-term compromise cannot be ruled out at this stage.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told journalists before today's talks that he is sure a compromise will be found, since no one wants to jeopardize the future of the European Union's common foreign policy.
Meanwhile, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana noted that all member states agree that war might be necessary. But, he added, the world is not at that point yet.
One of the leaders of the antiwar camp in the EU, Belgium, also stressed that timing is crucial. Responding to a call by British Prime Minister Tony Blair late last week not to rule out the use of force against Iraq, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel today said his country does not exclude the possibility of war.
But he also appealed for more time for the UN weapons inspectors. "I think we have to give peace a chance, and if we need some weeks more, it cannot be so catastrophic, if at the end of the process we have peace and have disarmament. Of course, Iraq has to disarm. I am sure that we are able to disarm Iraq by peaceful means," Michel said.
Time was also on the minds of many other ministers. Some of the states associated with the pro-war camp, such as Italy and the Netherlands, today indicated they are ready to give UN weapons inspectors at least a few more weeks.
However, a number of the countries opposed to war, while they support giving UN inspectors more time, oppose the setting of fixed deadlines, fearing these would be interpreted as start dates for war. Finland, Sweden, Austria, and Luxembourg were mentioned in this context by one EU diplomat.
Others in the antiwar camp argue a time limit would merely denote when the EU and/or the United Nations need to return to the issue.
Aside from timing, there have been suggestions that the situation in the Middle East, which together with Iraq completes the summit's hastily drawn-up agenda, could be part of a compromise should one emerge. Diplomats say the United States has indicated it could drop its opposition to the EU-sponsored "road map" for the creation of a Palestinian state. In return, presumably, the EU would need to offer something on Iraq.
It is worth noting that in the longer term, the Middle East has been one of the preeminent foreign-policy concerns for the EU.
Diplomats say the EU's Greek presidency, breaking with EU convention, has not prepared an advance text of a possible compromise. This, it is suggested, is inspired equally by a desire to avoid annoying member states by "overreaching," as a hope that what appeared possible at last night's expert-level preparatory meeting could turn out to be too modest.