- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Just as the International Criminal Court (ICC) had become yet another flash point in U.S.-European relations, good news come in from the weekend gathering of EU foreign ministers in Elsinore, Denmark. Ever since its founding document was negotiated in 1998, the ICC has been a subject of bitter contention between European governments, supporters of the ICC and the American government, its ardent critic. But things might not look so bleak after all.

We may even have to thank France for helping to ease the tensions. America's oldest ally has come to the rescue however inadvertently. Though it had kept it a secret, the French government had much the same objection to the court as the American government that its peacekeepers could be hauled before the court.

As the European nations met last Friday to discuss their common position at the EU meeting for the EU is supposed to have a common foreign and defense policy these days it was revealed, much to the surprise of other EU members, that the French government had secretly negotiated a seven-year exemption for its own peacekeepers back in 1998.

"I was somewhat surprised that France, despite signing the ICC, had been granted this exemption," noted Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh. Interestingly, demanding exceptions is exactly what Europeans have attacked the Americans for doing.

The ICC came into effect on July 1, and to date, its founding document, the Rome Statute, has been signed by 139 countries. Sitting in The Hague, the court will supposedly deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity. The court even claims jurisdiction over citizens of countries that have not signed onto it, a fact that has aroused a great deal of concern in Washington.

Now, Bill Clinton did sign the Rome Statute in the last moments of his presidency, on Dec. 31, 2000, but President Bush later took the extraordinary step of "unsigning" it informing the United Nations that it would not be ratified by the United States.

This spring and summer saw the Central Europeans drawn into the melee. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, these countries have sought warm relationships with the United States, while at the same time applying for membership in the club of wealthy European nations. In the matter of the ICC, they have been caught uncomfortably in the middle.

While this spring the United States asked current and prospective members of NATO to sign waivers with the promise that no Americans would be extradited to the court, a panel of EU judges in May issued a ruling that anyone who signed such a waiver would not only violate the Rome Statute, but also the principle of a common European foreign policy. The document committed EU countries to support the ICC in every possible way., and could be taken as a not-so-veiled warning against any dissent.

As of now, just four countries have signed the waivers demanded by the United States: Romania, Israel, Tadjikistan and East Timor. For Romania, it may well have been worth it.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, a former ambassador to Washington and a man who knows this town very well, gambled that the waiver might get Romania U.S. support for NATO membership at the alliance's summit in November, which it may well have done. On the other hand, Romania is not among the front-runners for EU membership.

If Central and East Europeans, who are not already NATO members, had to choose between NATO and the European Union, they would undoubtedly take NATO with its American security guarantees. Nevertheless, countries that have more imminent prospects of EU membership have refrained from committing themselves, hoping the impasse would be solved before the EU summit in December when new members are to be announced.

And as noted above, there is indeed some small progress toward a resolution. For one thing, the French exemption certainly undermines the EU position against exemptions from the ICC. Meanwhile, both the British and the Italians have indicated that they are ready to break ranks with their EU partners and accept deals signed bilaterally between individual countries and the United States. Ironically, it's a Brit, the irascible Chris Patten, who is EU commissioner for external relations and therefore in charge of enforcing the party line.

Meanwhile, Denmark's conservative government, which seeks closer relations with the United States and which currently holds the EU presidency, is also committed to finding an accommodation. Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller stated at the close of the ministerial meeting Saturday that "Our aim is to arrive at an understanding with the United States … without undermining the ICC."

That goal should be entirely achievable, particularly if the legitimate concerns of the U.S. government are finally taken seriously and of the French as well, of course.

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