Future members and candidates for membership in the European Union have endorsed a declaration calling for Iraq to disarm, but advocating more time for U.N. weapons inspectors. The predominantly Eastern European countries acted despite criticism by French President Jacques Chirac.
Just as the European Union managed to paper over differences among its members about the Iraq crisis, Jacques Chirac opened a rift with future and aspiring members of the bloc by calling their backing of the United States childish.
Mr. Chirac says their behavior is irresponsible and, in any case, shows they have no manners. In his opinion, they should have simply shut up.
Mr. Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leads the EU camp that is not willing at this time to go along with Washington's threats to use force against Iraq if it does not disarm. The French leader said the 10 former communist countries that signed two letters in support of U.S. policy were treading on dangerous ground.
He reminded them that the parliaments of current EU members still have to ratify the newcomers' accession.
The French president especially singled out Bulgaria and Romania, two countries that are not slated to join the European Union until 2007. He said if they wanted to reduce their chances for membership, they could hardly find a better way of doing it.
Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase responded diplomatically to Mr. Chirac's implied threat.
"Well, I do not think there is anyone who can judge who is more European than another," he said.
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld was less diplomatic. He said his country has the right to decide what is good for it and that France should respect that.
A veteran Hungarian diplomat said the bullying tone used by the French president reminded him of the overbearing way the former Soviet Union treated its allies during the Cold War.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly came to the defense of the candidate countries.
"I hope that no one is suggesting that they should be anything other than full members of the European Union and perfectly entitled to express their views," he said. "And they know the value, I think, too, of Europe and America sticking together.
Mr. Blair is the staunchest proponent in Europe of preserving the transatlantic link.
EU officials, trying to prevent a new European fault-line from opening up, began exercising damage control.
EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said unity is important, but that no country should tell another how to behave.
"All of us have our different ways of expressing ourselves, but the European Union is a club for equals, and everybody has got to be listened to," he said.
France has never been comfortable with EU enlargement, fearing that, as the bloc expands toward the East, its influence will inevitably diminish. More than any other country, perhaps, France has molded the shape of the European Union during the past 50 years. But, as the club grows from 15 to 25 and the EU center of gravity begins to shift eastward, it will be more difficult for Paris to impose its will on other members.