'Gang of Eight' Iraq Letter Rubs Salt in EU Wounds
By Paul Taylor, European Affairs Editor
BRUSSELS (Reuters - 30 Jan) - A joint letter by eight European leaders backing the United States on the crisis with Iraq highlighted the European Union's divisions on Thursday, rubbing salt into the wounds of its stumbling foreign policy.
EU president Greece, in charge of trying to coordinate European foreign policy, criticized the signatories for undermining a common approach to the Iraq problem.
The European Parliament deepened the disarray by declaring that Iraq's response to U.N. weapons inspectors did not justify military action and warning against a unilateral U.S.-led war.
In an article published in a dozen newspapers, the leaders of EU members Britain, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Denmark, plus future members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, called time on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and appealed for unity.
The move appeared aimed at isolating France and Germany, which had publicly argued against a rush to war, and building a pro-American caucus within the 15-nation EU.
"This looks like Rumsfeld's Europe," one EU diplomat said, referring to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal of France and Germany last week as "old Europe."
The eight failed to consult most of their EU partners and candidates about their initiative, launched just two days after the bloc's foreign ministers had tried to paper over the cracks with a statement backing the U.N. disarmament effort in Iraq.
GREECE KEPT IN DARK
Indeed British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, two of the prime movers, kept Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis in the dark during telephone calls on Wednesday, a Greek spokesman said.
That prompted Simitis to criticize the eight in a statement on Thursday, declaring: "The way in which the initiative on the issue of Iraq was expressed does not contribute to the common approach to the problem."
EU officials said neither the bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, nor its external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, was informed of the "Gang of Eight" letter.
"We don't live yet in a perfect world," European Commission spokesman Jonathan Faull commented, adding: "We are all agreed that there is still much to be done to reinforce the mechanisms of our common foreign and security policy."
One senior official said the initiative had wrecked a week of EU damage control spent trying to build a consensus in favor of the weapons inspections and respect for the primacy of the U.N. Security Council in deciding on war or peace.
The chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, German Christian Democrat Elmar Brok, said any chance of Europe's voice being heard had been undone.
"This way the Americans will lead and some Europeans will follow. The race of the vassals has begun," he said.
MILITARY ACTION UNJUSTIFIED
Parliament adopted 287-209 with 26 abstentions a non-binding resolution saying: "Breaches of U.N. Security Council resolution 1441 currently identified by the inspectors with regard to weapons of mass destruction do not justify military action."
EU diplomats said the "Gang of Eight" letter appeared timed to strengthen Blair's hand in talks with President Bush this weekend but might backfire in Europe. Blair's spokesman said France and Germany were not invited to sign.
"The transatlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime's persistent attempts to threaten world security," the open letter said.
The fact that only five of the 15 leaders of the existing EU signed the text, while one -- Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende -- refused, showed how evenly the bloc is divided, at least tactically, on the Iraq crisis.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bart Jochems said Balkenende, an ardent Atlanticist, had been approached but declined to sign.
"What we are aiming for is one European voice and we are trying to achieve that by bridging gaps and that is why the prime minister did not sign," Jochems told Reuters.
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin played down the letter, saying: "We are not trying to set one Europe against another when everyone can see we are defending the same principles -- firmness toward Iraq and a concern to find a solution to the crisis in the framework of the United Nations."
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told parliament he had not been informed of the letter but "the Belgian government does not need joint letters to express its solidarity with the international community and the United States."
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said he had not been asked to sign the joint letter but even if contacted, he would have preferred not to.
"The division plays in the hands of Saddam Hussein," Persson said. "Firm international pressure on Saddam Hussein is what is needed and every sign saying we are not united, the pressure on him diminishes.
"It is a strange situation, when the pressure which should be on Saddam Hussein is moved to a discussion between parties within NATO and countries in the EU. It is a bad and dangerous development."
Spokesmen for Austria, the Baltic states, Slovakia and Slovenia said their leaders had not been contacted.
While only Germany has opposed military action under any circumstances, France, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Greece and Finland have all urged giving the U.N. inspectors more time and insist on exploring all avenues for a peaceful solution.
In a further example of European cacophony, Denmark's center-left opposition parties accused Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of undermining European unity by signing the text, while Germany's conservative opposition said the letter showed how isolated Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was.
"The result of this policy will be an irreversible damage to Germany's position in the community of common values of the West," said Michael Glos, parliamentary leader of the opposition Christian Social Union.