France whispers `veto,' shakes union in Europe

Diplomacy: An uncharacteristically blunt message exposes the deep divisions over Iraq.

March 06, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The phone call from the French and German ambassadors came to the Dutch foreign minister's office yesterday afternoon. They wanted to meet with him right away on a matter of grave importance, they said, to deliver personally a message from their governments.

The words from the German ambassador, Edmund Duckwitz, were predictable enough. Germany, he said, echoing comments made in Paris by his foreign minister, would "not allow" a United Nations resolution authorizing war against Iraq.

But what the French ambassador said startled the foreign minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Over coffee and tea, Ambassador Anne Gazeau-Secret stepped past the nuances of diplomatic language and the hints and threats issued repeatedly - but never explicitly - by her government.

"I consider it a moment I will always remember," said de Hoop Scheffer. "The message was that, `Yes, France would use its veto.' She used the word veto. I still try not to imagine that it could really happen. It would be historical. It would do great damage to the trans-Atlantic relationship and, I think, will be a real marker in history."

As recalled by the Dutch foreign minister in an interview just after the ambassadors left his office, the meeting provides a glimpse of the intense lobbying under way by France, Germany and Russia, as well as by the United States.

Earlier in the day, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, Chris Sobel, had been arguing his case to de Hoop Scheffer while President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell spoke by phone with leaders in other countries.

The French ambassador said the meeting was held to reiterate comments made yesterday by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. De Villepin had said that France, together with Germany and Russia, would block the second resolution on Iraq introduced by the United States, Great Britain and Spain. As he has throughout the dispute, de Villepin avoided the word veto.

The meeting in de Hoope Scheffer's office was a joint demarche, a term of diplomatic art that elevated it from routine discussions to a presentation of the official position of the French and German governments.

Asked afterward whether she had said that France would exercise its veto, the French ambassador declined to comment. The German ambassador could not be reached.

The Netherlands is not a member of the U.N. Security Council and thus will have no voice in any vote concerning war with Iraq. If the United States goes to war with Iraq, the Netherlands will likely have little more than a symbolic role to play until the shooting stops.

That is one reason the blunt language from the French ambassador so startled de Hoop Scheffer. To him, such a message is a clear sign that the end of diplomatic efforts is at hand and that war could break out, with Europe splintered and much of the continent divided from the United States. The message is being sent, he said, to join one side or the other.

"I refuse to believe that war is inevitable," de Hoop Scheffer said. "But we are going into a moment where people like us in the Netherlands have to take a stand in favor of part of Europe - continue pressing for a united Europe or go strongly behind the United States. Standing for a united Europe no longer seems possible after today. Our role has been trying to stay on speaking terms with everybody, to build a bridge. Today that bridge collapsed."

He had seen remarks from a joint news conference of the French, German and Russian foreign ministers before the meeting and was disappointed that their message was so direct. The ambassadors who met with him later did not ask whether he would support their governments, he said, but only seemed to want to make clear that "they were not bluffing."

"I said, `You apparently have given up on a common European position,'" he recalled. "I asked, `Do you really think that by threatening with a veto you'll reach your objective of getting the American administration to wait months before a vote on another resolution?' They simply stated their position again."

With the emergence of the European Union and small steps toward a Europe-wide military, countries such as the Netherlands have been struggling to forge a common position. The split between the United States and Germany and France is serious, they recognize, and so too is the split within Europe.

To a point, the Netherlands has publicly backed the United States in its dealings over Iraq. Holland's official position is that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein must disarm and that if he does not do so voluntarily, a second U.N. resolution should be passed authorizing war. But the government has said that it does not consider a second resolution absolutely necessary.

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