Iraq: EU talks expose tensions between Paris and London

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The Independent Online
THE DIVISIONS between France and Britain about Iraq remained clear to the very end. "If there'd been no pressure, there would have been no deal." That was how Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, commented on an agreed statement on Iraq by the European Union yesterday. He made it clear that this referred to military pressure - which Britain has backed, but which France explicitly rejected.

A statement issued after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels attributed the agreement to the "firm resolve shown by the United Nations and the international community". Mr Cook noted that a "clear majority" - ie, not including France - backed the twin-track strategy of recent weeks, which combined diplomatic and military pressure. This was balanced in the statement by renewed emphasis, a la francaise, on the EU's "strong desire" for a diplomatic solution.

Mr Cook was chairing yesterday's meeting because Britain currently holds the presidency of the EU. At the same time, Mr Cook spoke on the telephone to Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, to co-ordinate the next moves. Britain hopes that a new resolution will be agreed at the UN, which will nail down the agreement reached in Baghdad. Such a resolution would allow for the possibility of military force if Saddam fails to comply with the agreement that has now been struck. The hope is that this continued pressure will dissuade Saddam from defying the UN at every turn. British officials insisted yesterday: "We can't be led up the hill every three months, in the way that we have been."

In a separate statement agreed in Brussels yesterday, the EU was eager to send friendly signals to the new Iranian leader, President Khatami, who is perceived as a moderate. Ministers talked of "encouraging" developments, and agreed that ministerial visits should be resumed between Europe and Iran. The ministers talked of "the long standing interest in forging a constructive relationship with Iran". But British officials emphasised that there is no chance that Britain's ambassador will return to Tehran in the foreseeable future; Britain is currently represented in Iran by a charge d'affaires. "While the fatwa [against the author Salman Rushdie] remains, that will be the case." Other EU countries are now once again represented at ambassadorial level.

Mr Cook, speaking for the EU, said that he "welcomed the first shoots of glasnost in Iran". Ministers decided that "a policy of exclusion would be counter-productive". The official statement merely listed "areas of concern", including weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the fatwa.

The statement was a clear soft-pedalling by comparison with the tough presidency statement issued 10 days ago, on the ninth anniversary of the fatwa imposed on Mr Rushdie. The issuing of the separate, earlier statement on Mr Rushdie made it possible for yesterday's "balanced statement" (in Mr Cook's phrase) to be almost needle-free.

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