EU nations remain divided over action against Iraq

By Daniel Rubin Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) BRUSSELS, Belgium _ Members of the European Union ended an emergency summit in Brussels on Monday still divided over a U.S.-led war against Iraq, but saying force should be a “last resort” in disarming Saddam Hussein. France and Germany stood firm in their position against an imminent war, while Great Britain remained squarely with the United States in calling for action soon. The EU leaders did concede that the U.S. military buildup in the region had forced Saddam to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors far more than he had in the past, and they called for further inspections to ensure Iraq’s disarmament. “Iraq has a final opportunity to resolve the crisis peacefully,” by cooperating fully with the United Nations and disarming, the 15-nation EU said in a formal declaration at the summit’s end. The statement is not likely to please Washington, which wanted a firmer declaration of EU support for military action against Iraq. It thinks divisions in the EU encourage Saddam to defy weapons inspectors and hide weapons of mass destructions that President Bush is convinced Iraq still has. The statement also papered over differences rather than resolved them, and it shows the difficulty the EU has in trying to speak with one voice in foreign affairs. It left open the question of whether France would exercise its veto in the U.N. Security Council if faced with a resolution authorizing war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed frustration with the group’s stand that inspectors need more time to do their job, even though it added the caveat that inspectors “cannot continue indefinitely in the absence of full Iraqi cooperation.” “The time you need is the time to make a judgment,” Blair said. “Is he cooperating or not?” Blair, Bush’s closest partner in the Iraq crisis, said Iraq was in “material breach” of U.N. Resolution 1441, which calls for Iraq to disarm or the Security Council would deliver “serious consequences,” including military action. Few others were ready to go that far, however, and Blair’s position was seriously undermined by the massive anti-war demonstrations in London and other European capitals over the weekend. The EU’s resolution leaves it to the Security Council to determine whether Iraq is in breach of its responsibilities, and if so, what the “serious consequences” would be. “There is not a fixed deadline in the resolution,” U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “but at some stage the council may decide that we are wasting our time and we should call a halt to inspections.” French President Jacques Chirac, while not ruling out war, said it was premature to talk about military action. Greece, which leads the EU this year, struggled to try to find agreement among the members. (EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) Last month, after France and Germany made a public show of their opposition to imminent war, the heads of eight other European countries _ EU members Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Denmark plus soon-to-be members the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland _ signed a letter supporting the U.S. position. Then came the Vilnius 10, more eastern and southern European nations adding their support of the U.S. position. “This is a high-risk summit,” said Ulrike Guerot, the EU specialist at the German Council of Foreign Relations. “The EU is expected to deliver common position, and if they don’t, then all those who said the EU is not ready to do anything on security and foreign policy will be right. The gap between ambition and reality is so big in EU foreign policy.” (END OPTIONAL TRIM) Those hoping for unity went into the meeting with some optimism. The day before, a monthlong standoff at NATO over Iraq ended when alliance members Belgium and Germany agreed to begin planning for Turkey’s defense should it be attacked. NATO leaders reached the agreement, after a marathon bargaining session, by deciding the issue in a military planning committee that since 1966 has not been attended by France, which remains opposed to any action that looks as if it accepts the inevitability of war. “The European mini-crisis has been overcome,” French President Jacques Chirac announced Monday evening after dinner, but when questioned about the future EU members’ contrary stand, he started another row. “They missed a good opportunity to shut up,” he said. (EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) The EU statement didn’t address some of the most significant differences among the current EU members, such as whether a second U.N. resolution is needed for a war, as Annan contends. Chirac says a second resolution is unnecessary, but Blair says it would be helpful politically. ___ ‘copy 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.