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Friday, 8 February, 2002, 19:15 GMT
EU denies rift with US
Josep Pique (L), Silvio Berlusconi (centre) and a Caceres official
Spain's Josep Pique (left) highlighted the disagreements
European foreign ministers meeting in the Spanish town of Caceres have denied that US President George Bush's "axis of evil" speech has caused a trans-atlantic rift.

But some have nevertheless criticised the US position, and warned Washington against unilateralism.

I don't think the problems of today can be solved in a unilateralist manner

Javier Solana
Ministers also made a start on the official agenda, which comprises the EU's role in Balkans peacekeeping, the enlargement of the union,and proposals for a new EU peace initiative in the Middle East.

The EU's stance on Zimbabwe is expected to be discussed - in particular a European Commission recommendation that targeted sanctions should be imposed if Harare hinders the deployment of election observers this weekend.

Shades of disagreement

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, denied any rift with the US, but warned Washington against an isolationist policy.

"I don't think the problems of today can be solved in a unilateralist manner," he told the BBC.

Hubert Vedrine
Hubert Vedrine: US foreign policy is 'simplistic'
"(Europe and the United States) have to try to overcome the difference and potential nuances we may have," he said.

The Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Pique, was more outspoken: "We are allies and we are friends, but in this particular case we don't share this point of view," he said.

France has condemned US policy in particularly strongly, with Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine calling it "simplistic" - a view backed up by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin on Friday.

Mr Bush's attitude towards the Middle East and his tough line on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is causing deep concern in Europe.

The BBC's Europe analyst William Horsley says there are now limits to what the EU can do in the region without risking an open clash with Washington.

Balkans conflicts

There were also internal disagreements between the EU members on whether the EU should take control of peacekeeping missions in the Balkans from Nato and the UN.

Pro-independence Montenegrins demonstrate
The EU is keen to stop Montenegro breaking away
"We have much sympathy for that proposal. The main burden (of Macedonian peacekeeping) is alrady borne by Europeans," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

But Portugal questioned the financial sense of the proposal, while Britain wanted to know what the "added value" of an EU mission would be, one EU diplomat was quoted as saying.

Unresolved questions surrounding the EU's rapid reaction force also complicate the debate.

The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana was also expected to report on his efforts to mediate between Serbia and Montenegro, the two surviving parts of the Yugoslav Federation.

Enlargement costs

He is due to make another attempt to convince Montenegro not to secede from the federation, when he meets President Milo Djukanovic for talks in Brussels on Sunday.

Discussion in Caceres of the future enlargement of the European Union - and in particular how to pay for it - threatens to cause fresh offence to candidate countries.

Most were shocked by recent proposals to offer them much less agricultural and regional aid than existing member states.

And among the existing members of the EU, there are some that want a bigger budget to pay for the costs of enlargement, while others are determined to pay no more than they do now.

See also:

08 Feb 02 | Europe
France steps up US criticism
04 Feb 02 | Africa
Mugabe evades EU sanctions
04 Feb 02 | Europe
EU bids to avert Yugoslav split
30 Jan 02 | Europe
Poland's farming woes
14 Jun 01 | Europe
The candidate countries
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