BRUSSELS, Belgium – Future European Union members endorsed a joint declaration Tuesday warning Saddam Hussein he has one last chance to disarm, grasping for unity despite signs of a new continental rift.
The endorsement ignored the damaging impact of French President Jacques Chirac's biting attack on eastern European nations that have backed Washington's hard-line drive to disarm Iraq.
"We had extensive, very effective and constructive consultations and we have reached an agreement," on the EU summit declaration, said Greek President Costas Simitis, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
The 13 future members endorsed the hard-fought statement by European leaders warning Saddam Hussein he faces a "last chance" to disarm. They gave no deadline and said U.N. weapons inspectors must have more time to finish their work.
The document was meant to end a bitter dispute within the European Union on Iraq.
However, Chirac's withering attack Monday night on eastern European nations who signed letters last month backing the U.S. position on Iraq created a new European faultline between a pro-American and staunchly European camps.
"It is not really responsible behavior," Chirac told reporters Monday just after the EU issued its declaration on Iraq. "It is not well brought up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet."
He warned the candidates their position could be "dangerous" because the parliaments of the 15 EU nations still have to ratify last December's decision for 10 new members to join the bloc on May 1, 2004. He singled out Romania and Bulgaria, who are still negotiating to enter the bloc in 2007.
Britain, the United States' staunchest ally, and Germany, which with France has tried to slow the drive toward war in Iraq, criticized the attempt to silence eastern European nations.
"They have as much right to speak up as Great Britain or France or any other member of the European Union today," Blair told reporters in London. "They know the value of Europe and America sticking together."
Eastern European leaders reacted defiantly to the tirade, reminiscent to some of the former Soviet Union's overbearing manner.
"The French position shows certain anxiety," Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Lyubomir Ivanov told state radio.
"It is not the first time that pressure is being exerted upon us in one or another form but in my opinion this is not the productive way to reach unity and consensus in the Security Council."
Romanian President Ion Iliescu called Chirac's remarks "irrational."
"Such reproaches are totally unjustified, unwise, and undemocratic," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.
But the future members also sought to downplay the impact of Chirac's remarks.
The Bulgarian prime minister welcomed the endorsement as a "positive show of unity for the union."
"The document the 13 agreed upon is proof that this meeting here ... has had a positive effect," said Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Saxcoburggotski, the country's former king.
The French prime minister was angered when leaders of EU candidates Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined Britain, Spain and Italy in signing a letter last month supporting Washington's hard stance on Iraq.
France and Germany have been leading calls to avert a war and continue U.N. weapons inspections to disarm Saddam Hussein.
Later, 10 former communist countries, seven of them EU candidates, reiterated their support for the Bush administration's position.
The two statements revealed a deep divide within Europe over Iraq, one of the factors prompting Greece, to call Monday's emergency summit to mend the rift.
France has long been the least enthusiastic about the prospect of EU expansion, fearing its own leading influence would inevitably diminish.
Despite Chirac's veiled threat, the candidates said they did not believe their entry into the EU was at risk.
"I believe Chirac said what he did in a moment of irritation," Romanian Foreign Ministry State Secretary Cristian Coltianu said. "We consider the process of enlargement to be irreversible."
The EU declaration was endorsed by representatives of the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and Malta.