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TENSION OVER IRAQ E. Europe backs joint declaration



Published: Tue, February 18, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The nations' defiance of France has created a new European rift.

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) -- Future European Union members endorsed a joint declaration today warning Saddam Hussein he has one last chance to disarm.

The endorsement ignored French President Jacques Chirac's biting attack on eastern European nations that have backed Washington's hard-line drive to disarm Iraq.

"We had extensive, very effective and constructive consultations and we have reached an agreement," on the EU summit declaration, said Greek President Costas Simitis, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.

The 13 future members endorsed the hard-fought statement by European leaders warning Saddam he faces a "last chance" to disarm. They gave no deadline and said U.N. weapons inspectors must have more time to finish their work.

The document was meant to end a bitter dispute within the European Union on Iraq.

New fault line

However, Chirac's withering attack Monday night on eastern European nations who signed letters last month backing the U.S. position on Iraq created a new European fault line between a pro-American and staunchly European camps.

"It is not really responsible behavior," Chirac told reporters Monday just after the EU issued its declaration on Iraq. "It is not well brought up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet."

He warned the candidates their position could be "dangerous" because the parliaments of the 15 EU nations still have to ratify last December's decision for 10 new members to join the bloc on May 1, 2004. He singled out Romania and Bulgaria, who are still negotiating to enter the bloc in 2007.

Britain, the United States' staunchest ally, and Germany, which with France has tried to slow the drive toward war in Iraq, criticized the attempt to silence eastern European nations.

"They have as much right to speak up as Great Britain or France or any other member of the European Union today," Blair told reporters in London. "They know the value of Europe and America sticking together."

Defiant reaction

Eastern European capitals reacted defiantly to Chirac's tirade, reminiscent to some of the former Soviet Union's overbearing manner.

"It is not the first time that pressure is being exerted upon us in one or another form," Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Lyubomir Ivanov told state radio. "But in my opinion this is not the productive way to reach unity and consensus in the Security Council."

Romanian President Ion Iliescu called Chirac's remarks "irrational."

"Such reproaches are totally unjustified, unwise, and undemocratic," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The Bulgarian prime minister welcomed the endorsement as a "positive show of unity for the union."

"The document the 13 agreed upon is proof that this meeting here ... has had a positive effect," said Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski, the country's former king.

The French prime minister was angered when leaders of EU candidates Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined Britain, Spain and Italy in signing a letter last month supporting Washington's hard stance on Iraq.

France and Germany have been leading calls to avert a war and continue U.N. weapons inspections to disarm Saddam Hussein.

Later, 10 former communist countries, seven of them EU candidates, reiterated their support for the Bush administration's position.

The two statements revealed a deep divide within Europe over Iraq, one of the factors prompting Greece, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, to call Monday's emergency summit to mend the rift.

France has long been the least enthusiastic about the prospect of EU expansion, fearing its own leading influence would inevitably diminish.

The EU declaration was endorsed by representatives of the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Malta.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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