Iraq: With relief, the EU stands aside from Gulf confrontation

Steve Crawshaw explains why ministers were happy to relegate Iraq to the bottom of their agenda
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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN foreign ministers meet in Brussels today for key talks on the most important foreign-policy issues facing the European Union. Given the circumstances, including the last-ditch attempts yesterday to find a compromise solution even as war continues to loom, one might assume that the Iraq crisis would dominate the agenda. One would be wrong.

Iraq is seventh out of eight items on the running order, barely a post-script to be discussed "over lunch". South Africa, Switzerland, China and Iran all figure more prominently. Britain, which holds the presidency of the Union until June, has not encouraged the EU to get involved. Indeed, it takes scant notice of the views of its European partners. During recent shuttle diplomacy to the Gulf, Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, emphasised that he only represented Britain; he was carrying no message from the EU. His key telephone calls are to the US secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, not to Brussels, Paris or Bonn.

All of which has caused some restlessness in Europe. The Dutch foreign minister, Hans van Mierlo, talked of Britain's "big problems" in meeting its obligations as an EU member, and complained that Britain was "trying to keep the EU on the outside as much as possible". French diplomats complain: "Why hasn't Tony Blair discussed things with the 15? It would have been difficult [to find a joint solution], but one could have tried."

None the less, Dutch diplomats insist that Mr van Mierlo was making a general point, affecting France as well as the UK: "Britain has two hats and two sets of responsibilities. It's not always easy to distinguish which hat a country is wearing. Two countries [Britain and France] are permanent members of the Security Council and also sometimes presidents of the EU. What he was trying to say is that there is always a dilemma when that happens. It was not meant as a criticism of the UK."

The French have been outspokenly at odds with Britain. In practice, however, this has been a national rather than a European viewpoint. A front-page headline in Le Monde last week talked of France "leading a final battle" to avoid war. The paper argued: "France is the only Western country to be directly involved in seeking a peaceful solution." Even the French, while refusing to contemplate the possibility of military action, acknowledge that other European countries will probably go along with it, if push comes to shove. For the moment, Britain is, on this side of the Atlantic, virtually being allowed to run the show.

Theoretically, Europe is working towards a common foreign policy. Yugoslavia was a high priority for the EU, and a diplomatic disaster, not least because of the divisions within the Union which meant that action was paralysed. But Yugoslavia was, as diplomats note, "on our doorstep", and therefore had to be confronted, at least in theory. The complexities of Iraq are further away, thus offering a useful alibi for European failure to have an agreed view. Britain and France, who both still like to think of themselves as global movers and shakers, are outspoken in their respective views. Others believe, as one diplomat acknowledged, that "they can afford to wash their hands".

Germany, whose constitution bars it from involvement in military adventures abroad, has been mostly supportive of Britain - emphasising the need to seek a diplomatic solution, but also accepting the possibility of military action, if other options fail. At today's meeting, there will be "strong support for continuing diplomatic efforts", which sounds like Elysee-speak. But the Italians, for example, are notably reluctant to criticise the tough British stance. "This is a question of braccia di ferro," one Italian diplomat noted - "iron-arm", meaning the test of strength where the weaker person's arm is forced down to the table. There is unanimity that Saddam Hussein must comply with UN resolutions, but on the question of military force, views are more mumbled.

If diplomatic pressures, including yesterday's visit to Baghdad by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, force Saddam Hussein to back down, France will claim credit for its last-minute brokering. Britain will continue to insist that only the threat of force persuaded Saddam to come to his senses. Meanwhile, the EU as a single entity remains clearly, perhaps even humiliatingly, on the sidelines.