EU war wounds `will heal quickly'

NEIL KINNOCK is adamant that no long term damage will be done to the European Union and its future by the falling out of France and the UK on military action in the Middle East.

NEIL KINNOCK is adamant that no long term damage will be done to the European Union and its future by the falling out of France and the UK on military action in the Middle East. In an exclusive interview in Brussels with EADT Political Editor GRAHAM DINES. The former Labour leader and now European Commissioner for Administrative Reform talks frankly about Jacques Chirac and the need for the EU to co-operate to rebuild a war shattered Iraq.

THERE'S no denying that the rift in Anglo-French relations over the invasion of Iraq is a "deep dispute" between two of the European Union's leading members. But the man who fought to persuade the Labour Party in the 1980s to change its outlook on the on the European Union believes the differences will be quickly resolved.

Neil Kinnock lead the Labour Party from just after its heaviest defeat in 1983 to 1992, when he was left reeling by John Major's unexpected triumph for the Tories soon after the last Gulf War when Saddam Hussein was evicted from Kuwait but left in tyrannical power in Iraq.

"The French attitude did not surprise me, not under President Chirac,"says Mr Kinnock in his typically blunt manner of the decision in Paris to veto any new United Nations resolution on the use of force to get rid of Saddam Hussein. "I would not categorise it as anti-American - I would say it is part of a general effort to underline what I will politely call the distinctiveness of France.

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"I don't think Chirac perceives that he and France can dominate the EU, we don't live in that sort of world. I think distinctiveness is considerably accurate and diplomatic."

Despite weeks of diplomacy at the Security Council and Tony Blair and President George W. Bush trying to persuade the Arab-leading French not to veto military action, Chirac made it very clear that it wanted the work of the weapons inspectors to continue as the means by which Iraq would be disarmed of its weapons of mass destruction.

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Yet t even though there is a yawning gulf between London and Paris - last week's summit in Brussels of EU heads of government only highlighted the differences - Mr Kinnock was remarkably upbeat as we spoke in his sixth floor office in one of the Commission's building close to the European Parliament.

"There is a very wide spectrum of issues on which Britain, France and the remainder of the European Union work together. "Even on the specific case of Iraq, there will be a joint determination to make a substantial contribution both in financial and physical terms to the civil reconstruction of the country.

"Part of this will be humanitarian aid and the other will be the physical reconstruction of the country once the war is over. I am certain the focus on that will bind and heal any wounds.

"Although the US will make the substantial contribution, Britain give a proportionate amount through the European Union because that way, we get a lot more commitment - and more value for that commitment - because of the size and effectiveness of what we are able to do as a part of 15 democracies rather than trying to do it ourselves."

I asked the commissioner if he did not regard it as unfortunate that after six years of Tony Blair striving to improve relations with Europe, the dispute over Iraq had cast a pall over European co-operation.

"The commitment shown by the UK in the last six is, in my view, very welcome, but it never guaranteed an absolutely smooth path and certain agreement on every single issue," said Mr Kinnock, who leaves his post after 10 years in Brussels in November 2004.

"What is evident that even among those who retain disagreement on the strategy as far as Iraq is concerned, there is very deeply rooted respect for the way in which Tony Blair and the government have conducted themselves.

"There are more reservations about George Bush and the American approach, but I think it is the reality that people in Europe, while not necessarily9would not necessarily endorsing Tony Blair, do recognise the practical purposes and the integrity of the commitment he is showing."

Although much of the Labour movement is ranged against the Prime Minister's decision to go to war, Mr Kinnock has a personal reason for wanting to see the back of Saddam Hussein.

"A lot of us hate Saddam, and from a long time before the invasion of Kuwait in 1991. He has killed a lot of my friends."

Was he worried that the French attitude would reinforce Eurosceptic prejudices among right of centre people in Britain? "Only in the sense that I am concerned on political views being based on prejudice. A lot of people, including those regard themselves as right of centre, will be able to separate out the issues and their attitudes towards our engagement in the European Union, which may be negative, and attitudes in relation to a crisis in which the French president chooses to put himself on the other side of the argument.

"Nobody should have a prejudice reinforced because of it. What they should do, since it is literally a matter of life and death, is be very cool in their appraisal of the general European situation and their appraisal of relationships with France in the context of a war against the fascist Saddam Hussein."

Mr Kinnock added: "I could reflect that it is very interesting that the most pro European Conservative, Kenneth Clarke, finds himself at odds with the Government's approach to the war against Saddam. What that says about Ken is that he is making an objective appraisal of all the issues and coming to a conclusion that is different to mine, but he has got the integrity of being objective and cool headed."

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