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Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 10:13 GMT
Greece steers EU down path of peace
Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis and EU Commission President Romano Prodi at a joint press conference after the official opening ceremony of the Greek EU presidency
Greece may use the EU presidency to oppose a war

Until Cyprus and Malta join the European Union next year, Athens is just about as close to the Middle East as the EU gets.

So it seems appropriate that Greece has taken over the presidency of the union at a time when the debate about Iraq will determine whether Europe is making any meaningful progress towards a common foreign policy.

We don't want a war. That is our desire and our intention

Prime Minister Costas Simitis
As the American-led military build-up around Iraq continues, there is growing determination among countries in the EU that United Nations weapons inspectors in Iraq must be given a proper breathing space to search for hidden weapons of mass destruction.

For the next six months Greece will take the lead in articulating EU policy, and it says the final decision on any military action must rest with the United Nations.

It also intends to lead a diplomatic mission to the Middle East in the coming weeks, to press the need for Iraq to comply with the UN in full in order to avoid war.

The Greeks have plenty to occupy them as they take the helm of the EU, but they admit that their presidency could be dominated by Iraq.

And on that issue their main goal is very clear.

"We don't want a war", said Prime Minister Costas Simitis. "That is our desire and our intention."


But to have any influence over events the EU knows it needs to agree a common position on what the next steps should be.

UN arms experts, wearing chemical suits, inspect a state company for marketing of medicines and medical equipment in Baghdad , Iraq
UN weapons inspectors need time to do their job

Just a few months ago that would have seemed impossible - Britain and Germany, for example, were at opposite ends of the spectrum.

But there has been some noticeable convergence.

Britain, Washington's closest ally in Europe, has expressed a little more caution.

And the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who has been strongly opposed to any military option, has conceded that sometimes "force has to be used against dictators".

There is still plenty of room for disagreement, but European political and public opinion is now broadly united in arguing that UN weapons inspectors in Iraq must be given enough time to do their job properly.

There should be no rush towards a conflict, and the weapons inspectors' next report on 27 January should not be a cut-off point.

No proof

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, spoke in forceful terms in recent days, arguing that unless overwhelming evidence of a secret Iraqi weapons programme emerges, an American-led military campaign would be hard to justify.

"Without proof", he told the French newspaper Le Monde, "it would be very difficult to begin a war".

But can Europe convince Washington to listen?

Greece is pinning its hopes on the fact that four of the EU's big players are now members of the UN Security Council.

Britain and France have been joined by Germany and Spain - giving Europe a powerful voice in New York if it can agree on a common position.

It is still a big if, and it will be an important test for the EU and for the Greek presidency - its most decisive foreign policy challenge in the coming months.

Busy schedule

What else is on the Greek agenda? Quite a bit.

Economic reform, finalising far-reaching plans for a future European constitution and - as a set-piece event - the signing in April at the Parthenon in Athens of the accession treaties which will allow 10 new members to join the EU next year.

But the threat of war in the Middle East will cast the longest shadow.

The EU is busy preparing contingency plans for dealing with humanitarian crises and a flood of refugees if military action begins.

"We have to be ready", said the Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, "but we hope it doesn't happen."

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See also:

09 Jan 03 | Country profiles
09 Jan 03 | Middle East
10 Jan 03 | Middle East
09 Jan 03 | Middle East
07 Jan 03 | Middle East
09 Jan 03 | Politics
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