- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24 (UPI) — The four foreign ministers of European countries that are currently members of the U.N. Security Council will meet in Brussels on Monday in advance of the scheduled weapons inspectors' report to the United Nations, Brussels officials said Friday.

They will take advantage of the six-hour transatlantic time difference to try to cobble up a common approach to the growing Iraq crisis before the inspectors who have been looking for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are due to make known their findings in New York.

But observers saw little hope of success in reconciling the respective positions of France and Britain — the two permanent Security Council members — and Spain and Germany.

As the Bush administration warns that time and its patience with Saddam Hussein are running out, the British government remains steadfast in its support. Spain, whose Foreign Minister Anna Palacio was in Washington Friday for talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell, also leans towards the tough American stance.

But France and Germany have found common ground in putting the brakes on U.S. action. They insist on another U.N. resolution as a pre-requisite to possible military action against Iraq if the inspectors' findings prove unsatisfactory. France can exercise a permanent member's veto in the Security Council, and Germany — as rotating council president from Feb. 1 — will be in a strong position to influence the proceedings.

The Iraq crisis has once again revealed wide foreign policy differences among European Union members, and absence of a unified front on major issues. "The actual debate (over Iraq) shows how necessary it has come to put in place a common foreign policy managed by the foreign ministers of the EU," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was quoted as saying Friday.

Growing public opposition in Europe to war against Iraq, as reflected in polls and demonstrations, has forced other government besides the French and German to back away from supporting military action.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whom the White House counts among its "friends," said Friday that Italy was withholding judgment until the U.N. weapons inspectors had been heard. He also cautioned that any involvement in armed action against Saddam would have to first receive parliamentary approval.

In Germany, where Schroeder played on anti-American sentiment to scrape through to a narrow victory in the November election, "land" or regional elections in Hesse and Lower Saxony on Feb. 2 are likely to stiffen the chancellor's resolve against involving Germany in what he once called Bush's "adventure."

Paris and Berlin were still smarting Friday from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld disparaging description of France and Germany as "old Europe."

The U.S. defense secretary made his controversial remarks after Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac had pledged to work together to avert war with Iraq during ceremonies in Paris Wednesday to mark the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German post-war treaty of friendship and cooperation.

Rumsfeld's point was that the center of gravity of NATO Europe "is shifting to the east" and East European governments were strong supporters of the United States.

Observers, however, pointed out that recent anti-war demonstrations in Prague, Budapest and elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc could alter that picture.

In the wake of the 70-year-old defense secretary's comment, Le Monde referred to him as "Old Rumsfeld." French Environment Minister Roselyne Bachelot told reporters: "If you know what I felt like telling Rumsfeld — merde."

European Commission President Romano Prodi also stepped into the fray Friday. "It's not old age that makes Europeans oppose war, it is wisdom," he said during a speech on 'dialogue between peoples and cultures' in Brussels.

Prodi — a former Italian prime minister — said "I find it difficult to see France and Germany as old, when they have been able to turn their whole history on its head. France and Germany have buried the hatchet and created a shared future out of a tragic past."

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(Gareth Harding in Brussels contributed to this story.)

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