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EU: Verheugen Defends Candidates In Row Over Support For U.S.

The European Union's top enlargement official, Guenter Verheugen, has defended the bloc's candidate countries from criticism that they behaved imprudently by siding with the United States in the Iraq crisis. Verheugen says that future members should not be put under pressure to choose between the United States and Europe. His statement may help smooth ruffled feathers in both Eastern and Western Europe, but the reality of the differences remains.

Prague, 18 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The man who has guided the European Union's eastward enlargement process, Guenter Verheugen, has come to the defense of those candidate countries who have been criticized for siding with the United States in the Iraq crisis.

Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen told a European Parliament committee yesterday that the situation must be avoided where future member states are pressured to choose between the EU and the United States.

Alluding to the failure of EU member states to build a common policy on Iraq, Verheugen said that the EU cannot expect candidates to observe a common EU position "that does not exist."

But at the same time, Verheugen gently admonished the candidates, saying they should in future try to liaise more closely with their EU partners before taking positions on a major international issue.

His comments come at a time when the EU is deeply split on the question of how to handle the Iraq crisis. Britain and Spain have taken a strongly pro-U.S. line of favoring force against the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein unless he disarms immediately. But France and Germany have maintained that war in not necessary.

The candidate countries became embroiled in the row earlier this year when four Central and Eastern European leaders (from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) joined in signing an open letter supporting the United States. Soon after that 10 more Eastern European countries issued a similar declaration.

The candidates then came under sharp criticism, particularly from French President Jacques Chirac, who hinted at punishment. Alexandra Ashbourne, an independent London-based analyst, said the incident is very regrettable in that it means the easterners are beginning their association with the EU "with blood flowing," as she put it. She criticized Chirac's reaction: "However small the country is or the countries are in comparison with the big heavyweights like France and Germany, you can't do that. That really is politically unacceptable."

At the same time she said she understands Chirac's concern, in that the accession of the 10 Eastern candidate countries will change the present balance of power within the EU, diluting the influence of established members like France. "You are having these members coming in who are inherently pro-trans-Atlantic in outlook because of their history, and they've got a history that I think the big powers -- especially France and Germany -- can't even begin to identify with," Ashbourne said.

The row goes on. EU president Greece this week criticized those members who had aligned themselves with the United States, saying they were "outside the EU framework." Legal experts have said those countries breached their legal obligation to consult with the other members and to coordinate their position on foreign affairs. But in view of the looming war, it's hardly likely that harmony will be quickly restored between the members.

"The events that are playing out in Washington right now will really, for the time being, [make impossible] any common foreign and security policy. Because we have just seen an opportunity for the EU to speak with one voice, but they're speaking with several different but equally loud voices," Ashbourne said.

Another analyst, Kirsty Hughes of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, said the Iraq crisis has dealt a severe blow to the EU's project to build a common foreign and security policy. She said she feels the members and candidates alike have learned a lesson from the present damaging disunity. She said the common policy project, which is only a few years old, will require much more work to make it effective.

"The question is whether in the next five, 10, or 15 years some of the bigger countries like France, Britain, and Germany are going to be willing to coordinate more, to have much more of a process for looking step-by-step at how they can overcome disagreements," Hughes said.

At any rate, Verheugen's comments in favor of the candidates will help to defuse the resentment which has built up on both sides of the divide.