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EU: Summit On Iraq Backs Away From War, Supports Continued Weapons Inspections

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels yesterday for an emergency summit defied widespread skepticism by agreeing to a common line on Iraq. Bolstered by unprecedented antiwar demonstrations in most EU capitals on 15 February, EU leaders expressed support for continued weapons inspections, said that war must be considered a last resort, and affirmed their commitment to the United Nations as the sole body authorized to deal with the crisis.

Brussels, 18 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- What many observers had described as irreconcilable differences among European Union member states on Iraq were put on hold last night -- at least temporarily -- with a forceful joint declaration. Instead of betraying divisions within the EU, as expected, the bloc endorsed a position that clearly sets it apart from the aggressive stance of the United States.

Javier Solana, the EU's security and foreign-policy chief, noted after yesterday's meeting that the EU countries stand firmly together in believing that Iraq must disarm, that the United Nations should be the "center of gravity" of that process, and that United Nations weapons inspectors need further support.

Solana said the EU will now try to convince others -- clearly meaning the United States -- that this is the right way to tackle the crisis.

The joint declaration states that the EU does not consider war inevitable and notes that "force should be used a last resort."

This is clearly a victory for Europe's "doves" over the "hawks," led by Britain.

French President Jacques Chirac, one of the leaders of the antiwar camp in the EU, emerged from the meeting saying he was satisfied, indicating that his views had prevailed. "I observed with certain satisfaction a clear rapprochement of points of view. Everyone knows that a few days ago tension arose between those who consider that war to disarm Iraq is almost inevitable and those who believe that the path cleared by [UN] Resolution 1441, that is, the path of inspections, is still fully justified," Chirac said.

A number of EU politicians admitted that mass demonstrations on 15 February against war had played a major part in the decision.

Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, said the demonstrations had shown that "Europeans want a European response," adding that the EU's "distinct voice" upholding the authority of the United Nations must be heard.

Yesterday's joint EU declaration warns Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that he must disarm immediately and cooperate fully with the weapons inspectors, adding that the present Iraqi regime alone will be held responsible for the consequences if it continues to flout the will of the United Nations and "does not take its last chance."

The document also says weapons inspections cannot go on "indefinitely" in the absence of full cooperation from Iraq.

The biggest weakness of the common EU position appears to be that it does not address the issue of how long the inspectors should be given to carry out their work.

Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis, speaking for the incumbent EU Presidency, said the UN alone can resolve international conflicts. He said only the Security Council can decide how long inspections should take, what means should be put at inspectors' disposal, and whether the use of force is warranted.

However, he said the EU could give no binding instructions to its four Security Council members. All four -- permanent members France and Britain and rotating members Germany and Spain -- remain free to make their own decisions according to circumstances. Simitis said the new EU position merely functions as a "framework" guiding their decisions. In other words, yesterday's decision could soon be subjected to strains similar to those that punctured the previous common position adopted by EU foreign ministers in late January.

Finally, Chirac launched an unprecedented broadside at the EU candidate countries that recently signed statements endorsing U.S. policy on Iraq. Chirac chided them for their stance: "I think they have behaved with a certain frivolity, because entering the EU requires a minimum of consideration for the others, a minimum of consultation. If on encountering the first difficulty, they start asserting their own views independently of any consultation with the bloc they want to join, then it is not what could be described as responsible behavior. I think [the candidates] have missed a good occasion to keep silent."

Three candidates -- the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland -- first signed a joint statement three weeks ago, together with five EU member states, pledging solidarity with the United States. Then 10 Eastern European NATO candidates, among them five countries invited to join the EU in 2004, signed an even stronger declaration in support of the tough U.S. stance against Iraq.

Yesterday, Chirac went on to warn the eight Eastern European candidates that their taking sides could lead to some EU member states failing to ratify the accession treaties.

Turning to Bulgaria and Romania, which aim to join the EU in 2007, Chirac said that if they had wanted to undermine their chances of membership, "they could not have done it better."

Today, representatives from all of the EU's 13 candidate states arrive in Brussels to be briefed on the latest common position, which their membership ambitions commit them to endorse and implement.