EU ministers at sea in attempt at reconciliation


EUROPE: Attempts were made to heal divisions over the Iraq war, writes Denis Staunton in Kastellorizo.

At 125 metres, the Alexander is the third-largest luxury yacht in the world, equipped with a ballroom, helicopter pad and countless other conveniences.

It is most famous though for a more melancholy reason, as the setting in 1992 for the last doomed attempt to reconcile Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana before their marriage collapsed in acrimony.

Twenty-five foreign ministers from present and future EU member-states spent much of the weekend attempting a more elaborate reconciliation on board the Alexander anchored off the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

They sought to patch up their own relationships after the divisions over Iraq and to devise a strategy to rescue the transatlantic relationship, which some of the ministers believe to be in crisis.

To make matters more complicated, the meeting came in a week when four of the EU's strongest opponents of war in Iraq held a controversial mini-summit aimed at forming closer defence links.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, described the discussion on board the Alexander as an intelligent debate held in a good spirit. Mr Cowen started the discussion on the transatlantic relationship with a reminder of how much both the EU and the US stood to lose if they failed to mend fences. "I just don't see in terms of the economic realities the idea that there is an alternative in some sense," he said.

Mr Cowen and Britain's Mr Jack Straw stressed the importance of September 11th, 2001, in reshaping US attitudes to the rest of the world. However, the External Affairs Commissioner, Mr Chris Patten, and Belgium's Mr Louis Michel, suggested that there were signs even before the attacks on New York and Washington that the US was moving away from a commitment to a multilateral, law-based system of resolving international conflicts.

The ministers agreed it was time for Europe to define its own security interests and they asked the EU foreign policy chief, Mr Javier Solana, to start work on devising a strategic security concept.

"We really have to strategically prepare a paper as to where we see ourselves now, what are the geo-political realities we face and how we can do more to enhance the transatlantic partnership," Mr Cowen said.

He believed the transatlantic relationship should form part of a "foreign policy triangle" for the EU, along with a commitment to multilateral institutions and a determination to strengthen the Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Mr Patten defended the right of allies to differ while appealing for a less divisive transatlantic dialogue on rebuilding Iraq under a UN umbrella. "I hope the blood-letting has stopped on both sides of the Atlantic and we can start talking about what we have in common and stop talking about punishments and disagreements," he said.

Some ministers were concerned that last week's defence initiative by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg represented an attempt to peel the EU away from NATO. Mr Cowen though was relaxed about the meeting, a view shared by Mr Straw, who thanked France and Germany for helping to "reduce the temperature".

Many of the proposals presented at the defence mini-summit are now being discussed at the Convention on the Future of Europe and some ministers said that it was inappropriate to anticipate the convention's conclusion.

Finland's Mr Erkki Tuomioja criticised a proposal for a "solidarity clause" obliging EU member-states to help each other in the event of a terrorist attack. "If I needed help, I would ask NATO," he said.

A number of ministers were worried that the solidarity clause could be the beginning of a mutual defence pact within the EU but Mr Solana reassured them that the proposal before the convention was strictly limited.

During a discussion on how best to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction Greece's Mr Papandreou said that although sanctions were the preferred method to put pressure on rogue states, the use of force to ensure compliance with international disarmament rules should not be excluded.

"Weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation are probably as historically destabilising as the invention and spread of gunpowder. If our efforts at peaceful enforcement do not work, are we willing to establish a doctrine for the use of force?" he asked.