European Community foreign ministers today launched a diplomatic initiative aimed at preventing "a spiral of violence" involving the United States and Libya touched off by Libyan-inspired acts of terrorism.
Meeting for the second time in four days, the foreign ministers refrained from either approving or condemning the U.S. military raid on Libya Tuesday. The raid took place within hours of a previous appeal by the EC for restraint by both Libya and the United States.
The EC's acting president, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, later told reporters that specific measures to counter terrorism would be submitted for approval to a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. The measures, some of them agreed to in principle earlier this week, are said to include stricter controls on Libyan diplomats in western Europe, credit restrictions on Libya and improved intelligence-sharing.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead, in Paris for discussions on combating terrorism, welcomed the decisions as "positive" steps. He also appeared anxious to play down reports of differences with France following the French decision to refuse overflight rights to U.S. F111 fighter-bombers taking part in the raid against Libya.
"We were disappointed, but that was yesterday's disappointment. We have put that behind us and we now look to cooperating with the French," he said at a news conference here, denying that the 2,400-mile diversion could have contributed to the loss of one of the F111s.
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, speaking last night in Cambridge, Mass., had expressed "considerable disappointment" with the French government for its refusal to allow overflights by the U.S. warplanes and said the extra distance had increased the risk to the American crews.
Today's emergency meeting here illustrated the difficulties involved in persuading Western European governments to agree on a common position at a time of international crisis. Any decision binding the EC needs the approval of countries ranging from Britain, which actively supported the U.S. raid against Libya, to Greece and Spain, whose foreign ministers both criticized it today.
"The problem we face is that everybody keeps saying they want the European voice to be heard in Washington, but they are not willing to make the kind of decisions that would make our voice credible," a British official said in private.
As the only Western European country to express support for the U.S. raid, Britain again found itself at odds with its EC partners. British officials argued privately that the raid might have been avoided had Western Europe been willing to take tougher action to curb terrorism.
France has called for tougher action against terrorism by Western European countries. But French officials today made clear that they were opposed to a British suggestion that EC states simply shut Libyan diplomatic missions.
The French position, shared by countries such as Italy, is that it is impossible to effectively control Libyan officials who are also accredited to international organizations such as UNESCO in Paris and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome.
At today's press conference, van den Broek said that the 12 EC countries had decided to step up diplomatic contacts with Arab nations, the Arab League, the United States, the Soviet Union and the Nonaligned Movement in an attempt to defuse tensions.
"Europeans don't have to be persuaded to combat terrorism more actively'" he said. "Most terrorist acts take place in European countries, and there are also many European victims."
When the EC foreign ministers meet Monday, they will receive the report of a working group on terrorism set up Jan. 27. Since then, the EC has taken some steps, including naming Libya for the first time as an instigator of international terrorism. But it has failed to take the kind of decisive action urged by Reagan administration officials, including imposing economic sanctions on Libya.
van den Broek said that the meeting was satisfied that British Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe was unaware that a U.S. air raid had been imminent last Monday when the EC foreign ministers called on the United States to show restraint. There had been suggestions that Howe had misled his colleagues over Britain's involvement in the U.S. action.
British officials said Howe learned of the U.S. decision to go ahead with the raid only late Monday night on his return to London. This explanation was accepted by van den Broek, who said there was a distinction between awareness of preparations for military action and knowledge of the final decision.
Tuesday, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said Howe was present Saturday when the U.S. request for British support in the raid and permission to use F111s based in Britain was received.
A spokesman for French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac disclosed today that France was first approached last Friday night through diplomatic channels for overflight rights. The decision to turn down the U.S. request was made jointly by Chirac and Socialist President Francois Mitterrand on Sunday morning before the arrival here that evening of U.S. special emissary Vernon Walters.