Chirac, Blair meet in London on Iraq, EU

24th November 2003, Comments 0 comments

LONDON, Nov 24 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac met British Prime Minister Tony Blair Monday in London as the two leaders tried to repair a relationship severely strained by the US-led invasion of Iraq in March.

LONDON, Nov 24 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac met British Prime Minister Tony Blair Monday in London as the two leaders tried to repair a relationship severely strained by the US-led invasion of Iraq in March.

Their talks at Downing Street - hot on the heels of US President George W. Bush's state visit to Britain last week - were also to focus on European defence projects and a hotly-debated EU constitution.

Officials say Chirac, accompanied by his prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, was to discuss occupied Iraq's reconstruction and the proposed June 2004 transfer of sovereignty with Blair.

The two leaders fell out badly over the need for war against Saddam Hussein, with Blair siding with Bush and Chirac opting for more time for UN inspectors to seek out alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Blair and Chirac were also to review the stymied Middle East peace process, and it was likely that the French president will give public words of solidarity for Britain after last Thursday's suicide bombings in Istanbul.

Regarding Europe, political analysts say Chirac would be looking for signs of commitment from Blair for the creation of a European military planning capability independent of NATO.

Blair was initially cool to the idea - co-sponsored by France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg - when it was announced in April. The Bush administration is opposed, fearing it will undermine NATO.

But more recently he has signalled a willingness to agree to it, though observers expect he will want an iron-clad guarantee that NATO will remain the linchpin of European security.

The proposed military planning facility, likely based in Brussels, would supply the brainpower for EU military operations which US-dominated NATO would prefer not to participate in.

"The important thing is that we recognise this country has always been in favour of increased European co-operation," a spokesman for Blair told journalists before Monday's talks began.

"But that has to be in the context where that co-operation complements NATO, does not compete with it but is compatible with it. Therefore what you have is a practical question of how you address that issue."

Blair and Chirac are also likely to review work on the proposed EU constitution that will be put before European leaders at their quarterly summit in Brussels on December 12-13.Blair was also to meet later in the day with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar - a key supporter of the war on Iraq - who is in London for a business seminar.

Blair and Chirac's last bilateral summit took place at Le Touquet, on the French side of the English Channel, in February, but they have seen each other several times since then at multilateral events.

Questioned on the state of relations between Britain and France, the spokesman noted that 2004 marks the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, which marked the end of Franco-British colonial rivalry in north Africa and eventually led to the two nations' World War I alliance against Germany.

"This relationship has gone through many different guises" since the Entente was signed in April 2004, he said.

"At times we act together. At times we speak together. At times we have to speak bluntly about our differences - but throughout that 100 years we have continued to talk to each other."

Blair, the spokesman said, welcomes the fact that he could "speak honestly about our differences as well as those things we have in common" with the French president.

© AFP

                                                                Subject: French news





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