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 Monday, 27 January, 2003, 18:06 GMT
Divided EU agrees Iraq statement
UK's Jack Straw (r) talks to Germany's Joschka Fischer
Making a point: Ministers have strong differences of opinion
Foreign ministers from across a divided European Union have issued a common statement urging Iraq to comply "without delay" with UN weapons inspectors.

The 15 ministers are bitterly split on how to handle the crisis over disarming Saddam Hussein, but the carefully-worded statement used the little common ground available to reach a joint declaration.

"The Iraqi authorities must, as an imperative, provide the inspectors, without delay, with all additional and complete information on questions raised by the international community," said the statement.

Saddam Hussein
Fully or broadly behind US - UK, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Denmark
Fully or broadly opposed - France, Germany, Greece, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg
No clear position - Ireland, Portugal, Sweden, Finland

There was no direct reference to French- and German-led calls for the weapons inspectors to be given more time, but the statement said ministers welcomed the inspectors' "intention to continue and intensify their operations".

Greece, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, insisted after chairing the meeting that a peaceful solution to the crisis was still possible.

Before the 15 ministers' talks, a separate meeting was held of the four EU countries on the UN Security Council - the UK, France, Germany and Spain.

The pro-US line in Europe is strongly led by the UK, with Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark also seen as broadly supportive of any military action.

France and Germany are leading the bloc of countries opposed to conflict.

Single voice

Several smaller countries, including Ireland and Sweden, have no clearly-stated position.

French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said the statement agreed by the ministers "corresponded fully" with his government's position.

"It's a declaration that answers the question whether we should continue with inspections," Mr De Villepin said.

"As long as the inspectors can make progress, and are able to report back at regular intervals, there is every reason to continue down the inspections route."

The split has dashed hopes from some of Europe's biggest players - France, Germany and Italy among them - of working towards an EU which could speak authoritatively with one voice on foreign policy matters.

Time is running out for Saddam Hussein

Jack Straw
UK Foreign Secretary
A single-minded EU, supporters of the common policy argue, could play a much bigger role on the world stage.

But Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi has been quoted in La Repubblica newspaper as saying it was "perfectly useless" to even try finding a common position.

Even as the ministers arrived for the meeting, and in comments over the previous 24 hours, their differences were obvious.

"Time is running out for Saddam Hussein," said the UK's Jack Straw. "He has had a lot of time, 12 years, to fully comply."

The period (of weapons inspections) could probably be several weeks, even several months

Dominique de Villepin
French Foreign Minister
And Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said the EU had to send Saddam Hussein a clear message that he was facing his "last chance" to disarm.

But French ministers say several more months might be needed for the inspectors to finish their task.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has also backed those calling for more time for the inspectors.

Anti-war protesters in Davos
The anti-US axis believes it reflects public opinion
"We are talking about a question of weeks, about months, but not an infinite amount of time. The co-operation of Saddam Hussein with the inspectors has to be proven very, very rapidly," he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, arriving at the Brussels meeting, restated his country's opposition to war.

"We must try everything to implement (the previous resolution) without military force," he said.

Greece, which currently holds the EU presidency, had worked hard to find enough common ground to the single statement.

Diplomats had warned that only a "lowest common denominator" position was expected to result, with a statement so bland as to be virtually meaningless.

The statement was released hours before chief weapons inspector Hans Blix delivered his interim report to the Security Council, saying Iraq had not yet fully accepted the need to disarm.

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See also:

27 Jan 03 | Europe
27 Jan 03 | Americas
23 Jan 03 | Europe
26 Jan 03 | Americas
26 Jan 03 | Europe
26 Jan 03 | Politics
24 Jan 03 | Middle East
24 Jan 03 | Middle East
22 Jan 03 | Country profiles
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