Belgian minister says Blair is 'over-acting'

War against terrorism: Coalition
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair's strong support for America has been criticised by a European foreign minister – the first clear sign of strain in the Western alliance mounted against the suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Louis Michel, the Foreign Minister of Belgium, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, told a newspaper Mr Blair was "over-acting" and warned that other European countries would not follow Britain and America "blindfolded". Although Mr Michel is renowned for his love of controversy, his position as chairman of EU foreign ministers makes the comments more difficult to shrug off.

British diplomats were already angry at an earlier TV interview in which Mr Michel described the position of Mr Blair as "too bellicose", an incident that is almost certain to lead to a diplomatic protest. After Mr Michel's earlier criticism, Belgian officials argued their Foreign Minister had been trapped by the format of a populist TV programme.

In an interview in Belgium's Dutch-language newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, though, goes further.

The paper quoted Mr Michel, of the francophone liberal party, as saying that the British premier's support for Washington had left a "bitter taste" in his mouth. "I have a lot of respect and admiration for Blair. I, however, admit that I regretted him making such statements. I therefore reject all overly aggressive speeches," Mr Michel said.

Which of Mr Blair's statements Mr Michel was referring to was not specified, although the comment was assumed to be a reaction to the Prime Minister's party conference speech in Brighton.

The Belgian Foreign Minister said: "Blair may be competent, a good leader who meets his responsibilities, but his strong statements this week left a bitter taste in my mouth. He was over-acting. After Blair's speech, like many others, I said there are limits to solidarity.

"Maybe Blair was sensing that the public opinion in his country needed such a speech, that he was sensing their support. It is different in our country and in other member states. The public opinion is divided and the political opinion as well. We won't follow [the US President George] Bush and Blair blindfolded".

Mr Michel's words, directed at a domestic audience, may be designed to assuage fears voiced particularly by the Green party (which is part of the government) about the prospect of civilian casualties in the bombing of Afghanistan.

British diplomats argue that the position of Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian Prime Minister, who has been highly supportive of the western alliance, is more important than that of Mr Michel. Mr Verhofstadt convened a emergency summit of the EU heads of government in response to the 11 September attacks. That issued a strong endorsement of America's right to retaliate. Although the two men come from opposing parts of Belgium's linguistic divide, they are close political allies.

Mr Michel has been careful to toe the official line of support, announcing last week that Belgium agreed to provide a medical unit and a transport flight for the Allies involved in military action.