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US View on International Criminal Court is Wedge Issue for Europe - 2002-08-14

The European Union is defending its policy of trying to block prospective EU members from agreeing to exempt American troops from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court. The bickering over the court is one more issue threatening to divide the United States and its traditional allies in Europe.

The United States is vehemently opposed to the International Criminal Court. It says countries hostile to Washington might seek to bring politically motivated cases against Americans, especially U.S. troops stationed around the world.

The 15-member European Union, on the other hand, actively supports the court, seeing in it as a powerful global deterrent to war crimes.

The latest transatlantic spat arose last week, when the EU said it regretted Romania's signing of a deal with Washington in which Bucharest promises not to hand over American citizens to the Court. Romania is one of 13 nations in line to join the union in the years ahead. But it also wants to join NATO later this year and has been seeking American support for its admission to the alliance.

Earlier this week, word was passed from EU headquarters in Brussels to other countries seeking to join the union that they should abstain from signing such agreements with Washington until the EU comes up with a common position on whether it will allow the bilateral deals. That decision is not expected until the end of this month, when EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Brussels.

The United States reacted strongly, accusing the EU of using undue pressure to prevent individual countries from signing such accords. A US State Department spokesman said the EU's call for candidate members to postpone striking deals with Washington until a common EU position is reached was in his words inappropriate.

Not so, replied the EU on Wednesday. The Union says it is entirely appropriate to ask countries to wait before they sign agreements because, under EU rules, candidate countries must adapt their policies to those of the bloc as a whole as a condition for membership.

U.S. diplomats acknowledge that they have received instructions from Washington to vigorously pursue bilateral accords granting immunity to American citizens. They say some EU members even encouraged this approach as a way of forging a compromise over the International Criminal Court at the United Nations.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council gave U.S. peacekeepers a year's exemption from prosecution by the Court, giving Washington time to seek bilateral deals with countries that have ratified the treaty setting up the Court.

The EU-U.S. bickering over the court comes atop transatlantic tensions over environmental issues, trade disputes, and, most importantly, European reluctance to go along with Washington's call for overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.