Hans Blix at the Iraq inquiry

UN weapons inspector makes clear that 2003 invasion took place despite lack of evidence and increase

The Iraq war was "illegal" and the idea that military action merely upheld UN Security Council resolutions was "absurd", the UN weapons inspector Hans Blix told the Chilcot inquiry yesterday afternoon.

Asked what he thought would have happened, had the March 2003 invasion not taken place, Blix said he would have completed the inspections and introduced proper monitoring of Iraq's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities. When pressed, he said that although he thought a diplomatic route could have been backed up by military threat, he doubted it would have involved the deployment of 250,000 men, and said the military pressure could have ensured that the inspections procedure was completed.

His own position on whether Iraq possessed WMDs at the time is rather more complex than is often thought: at the time of the "dodgy dossier" in September 2002, he said he personally expected the presence of weapons, but could not say so in his official capacity as an evidence-gatherer for the UN. He did also say at the time that he thought the dossier "plausible".

However, he changed his view in early 2003 when a scathing report produced greater Iraqi co-operation, with offers to excavate materials from the 1991 war and people involved in armament at that time offering to travel abroad for interviews. Blix says he communicated the change in his opinions to Tony Blair. He also insisted that his team was never denied access to sites, and that it was "not really" greeted by resistance or violence. If this had been the case, he said, he would have complained to the Security Council.

Despite this trend of increased co-operation throughtout the early part of 2003, Blix said he felt he could date the change in British attitude to 10 March 2003, shortly after he submitted a "working document" to the UN that Jack Straw described as "sensational", even though Blix himself felt that it provided very little new information.

Blix maintained that reports that Blair tried to get him to change his mind on the presence of WMDs in order to placate the US were false.

He felt that once his team began reporting back that no evidence had been found at any sites, the US and UK should have changed their policy -- that, he feels, is the main lesson that should be drawn from the situation. His only regret, he says, is the "harsh tones" he used in the January document, which consituted a warning to Iraq to improve co-operation, which it then did.

The issue of co-operation was the real revelation from Blix's evidence yesterday. He made it clear that the US and UK were moving towards military options despite an increased level of co-operation from the Iraqis and a lack of evidence found by the inspectors.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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