Spectre of Iraq war looms large over EU top jobs race

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The opening of national inquiries into the decisions that led the British and Dutch governments to support the US-led invasion in Iraq may be extremely relevant to this year’s race for top EU jobs, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV.

The role played by European politicians in the days leading up to the Iraq war may well influence the race for top EU jobs, set to begin in earnest this year, the sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

The matter could become relevant, in particular regarding the choice of a new Commission president and, if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, the permanent EU president and the Union’s foreign policy chief. 

Those potentially affected could include former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, his then foreign minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, who was then prime minister of Portugal. 

British inquiry 

The British government will decide before 23 February whether to open a Pandora’s box revealing the extent to which Blair is to be blamed for the decision to attack Iraq, which was wrongly suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction. 

Blair is widely seen as one of the strongest candidates to take the job of permanent EU president, a position created under the Lisbon Treaty, which still needs to be ratified by all EU member states. A few days ago, Alain Minc, a member of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s inner circle of advisors, told a public event that Sarkozy will back Blair’s nomination for the position. 

Blair was widely criticised for backing former US President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, despite failing to secure a second United Nations resolution on the stand-off. While still in office, Blair resisted demands to disclose information on decisions taken on the eve of the Iraq war. 

Dutch probe 

In the Netherlands, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has bowed to pressure from the Labour party, a member of his three-party coalition, following the publication in the press of several secret government memos. In these memos, civil servants warned the government, headed by Balkenende, about the slim legal basis for an invasion. 

Balkenende was skilled enough to postpone the presentation of the special committee report until the end of October, meaning after the European elections, one source commented, before adding that even belatedly, the results of the inquiry may harm Balkenende’s presumed ambition of replacing José Manuel Barroso as Commission president. 

Officially, Balkenende has denied interest in the position. But the investigation could harm Dutch candidates for other top EU positions, including current NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. A document, written by legal advisers at the Dutch foreign ministry, reportedly warned de Hoop Scheffer – who was the Dutch foreign minister at the time – that there was no proper legal basis for the country’s support of the invasion. 

Scheffer is about to leave his NATO job and his name is being mooted for the position of the EU’s first foreign affairs chief. 

Barroso’s chances compromised? 

Current Commission President Barroso is increasingly unsure of his re-appointment, according to several sources. The main reason appears to be a drop in support by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Barroso is also seen as a staunch supporter of the US-led Iraq war. 

As Portuguese prime minister, Barroso organised a crucial pro-war meeting in the Azores on 16 March 2003, attended by George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar. 

Most EU countries bowed to EU pressure and supported the US-led war in Iraq. But diplomatic sources insisted that only a few European leaders played a pivotal role on the eve of the war, and it is their political future which is now at stake. 

The Iraq invasion began on 20 March, four days after the Azores meeting. The organisation Iraq Body Count estimates that there have been between 90,000 and 99,000 civilian deaths in the country since then. 

British Labour MEP Richard Corbett was categorical in insisting that the Iraq war will not be an issue in the EU elections. "I think that's now water under the bridge. There will be always arguments about the rights and wrongs of [European politicians' positions on the eve of the US-led Iraq offensive]. But now we've moved on and Iraq itself is no longer in the same situation." 

As for the possibility of a pro-war politician, such as Tony Blair, being appointed to the top EU job, Corbett did not see a direct link between the issues. "At the time, almost all of the [present] 27 member states, I think with the exception of one or two of them, supported the intervention." 

On 27 January, the UK Information Tribunal backed a decision to disclose the minutes of Cabinet meetings held on 13 and 17 March 2003, when ministers held talks on whether the decision to go to war was legal under international law. The Information Tribunal is a non-departamental public body in the UK, formerly known as the Data Protection Tribunal, established to hear appeals under the 1984 Data Protection Act. 

The minutes of the Cabinet meetings cover talks about whether or not the Iraq invasion was legal. Minutes are usually kept private for years, but the tribunal said this is an exceptional case in which the public interest outweighs confidentiality. The government has 28 days to appeal against the decision. 

On 2 February, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende gave the green light for a similar inquiry to take place as demanded by the Dutch Labour Party, which is a member of Balkenende's three-party coalition. 

The prime minster reportedly announced that the investigation will be led by a special committee, manned by heavyweights and chaired by former president of the Supreme Council Willibrord Davids. A report should be on the table before 1 November 2009. 

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