The continuing split in Europe over how best to combat state-sponsored terrorism was evident at yesterday's protracted meeting of the European Community here. Britain was seeking unanimous EC support for increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria, with whom Britain broke relations Friday. As this went to press, the EC ministers had not reached a decision.
At yesterday's meeting, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe urged other EC foreign ministers ``to send a clear, collective signal that Syrian involvement in terrorism is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,'' British officials reported.
It came as no surprise to long-time EC observers that the foreign ministers had difficulty adopting a tough joint stand vis-`a-vis Syria. The speed with which Britain acted caught most countries off balance, and the ministers broke off deliberations at least once Monday to seek instructions from their capitals.
In the past, often conflicting political and economic interests have pitted one country against another when the EC has been confronted with devising a common position on politically sensitive issues. Earlier this year the EC was able to agree only on limited sanctions against Libya when asked to do so by the United States. And last month, the EC adopted a rather weak package of punitive measures against South Africa, despite unequivocally strong collective opposition to apartheid.
The minimum Britain reportedly wanted at yesterday's meeting was: a recall of ambassadors from Damascus; curbs on the movements of Syrian diplomats; and stricter visa rules for Syrian nationals. Britain also appeared to want the EC to consider banning arms sales to Syria and freezing EC economic aid programs.
But many EC nations were reluctant to sever diplomatic ties with Damascus given Syria's pivotal role in the Middle East. Most nations were also hesitant to recall their ambassadors from Syria.
Until now, the 12 EC members have sought to maintain a comfortable working relationship with Syria, not only because of its importance in the Middle East but also because of its economic and political ties to the Community's three Mediterranean members -- France, Italy, and Greece. France has been seeking Syria's good offices and assistance in helping secure the the release of eight French hostages held in Lebanon.
A British official said that Sir Geoffrey had presented to his EC colleagues ``convincing evidence'' of Syrian government involvement in terrorism.
But a Belgian delegate, echoing a widespread view among EC ministers here, said that ``so far, Syrian complicity has not been proved -- at least not to our satisfaction.''
Britain severed diplomatic ties with Damascus after Jordanian national, Nezar Hindawi, was found guilty of trying to smuggle a bomb onto an Israeli airliner in London last April. Evidence presented during the trial, which ended Friday, reportedly showed that Syria's ambassador in London had been directly involved in the plot. Syria firmly denies any connection with the plan.