Britain helps to block EU call for 'immediate' end to hostilities

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Britain and three other countries have blocked a European Union statement calling for an "immediate ceasefire" in the Middle East, deciding instead on a vaguer declaration calling for an "immediate end to hostilities, to be followed by a sustainable ceasefire".

Even this statement, agreed unanimously by EU foreign ministers, went further than Britain had originally wanted by including the sensitive word "immediate".

British officials insisted that the original draft declaration, put forward by the Finnish government as acting EU president, would have been pointless and unhelpful. The reworked statement took account of political and military realities, they said, emphasising that both Israel and Hizbollah must be prepared to end hostilities before a formal ceasefire was workable.

"We want [the fighting] to stop, but standing up and just saying we must have an immediate ceasefire will not be effective," a British spokesman said. "In reality it means asking the Israelis to stop. Are Hizbollah going to accept an immediate ceasefire?"

The emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels split along somewhat unusual lines. Britain was joined by the Czech Republic and Poland, two of the staunchest American allies in eastern Europe.

But the British line was also supported by Germany, which stood on the opposite side of the so-called Old Europe/New Europe split in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Gerhard Schröder was chancellor. His successor, Angela Merkel, has made it clear that she plans to pursue a more independent foreign policy, not necessarily following the United States, but not always agreeing with France either. France, with Sweden, Spain and Greece, was one of the strongest supporters of the original Finnish draft statement.

The Finnish Foreign Minister, Erkki Tuomioja, who chaired the meeting, said earlier that the EU must form a united front, even at the risk of breaking with the United States.