Europe's Family Feud

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The arrogant superpower demands fealty from the lesser states, and quashes any back talk. We've heard it all before. But that familiar take on Washington's push for war in Iraq took a delicious twist last week when France marched blithely into the role of bogeyman. French President Jacques Chirac's intemperate broadside at European Union candidate countries who back America's stance on Iraq he called them "not very well behaved and rather reckless" and said they had "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" deepened the schism within the E.U. at a time when the Union is already at loggerheads over foreign policy. Chirac also added a menacing codicil, directed at E.U. candidates Romania and Bulgaria: "If they wanted to reduce their chances of joining Europe, they could not have found a better way." Vladimir Lastuvka, chairman of the Czech parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs, was among the flabbergasted. "Had it come from [U.S. Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, it wouldn't have surprised me," he said. "But such a tone is not customary in Europe."

Really? Check out the tone of the headline on a special French-language front page of British tabloid the Sun, provocatively distributed for free on the Champs Elysees last week: chirac est un ver (Chirac is a worm), a reference to his opposition to U.S. plans in Iraq and to his handshake with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe in last week. Welcome to the proxy war over Iraq, a spin-off of the traditional cross-channel battle waged with brio for centuries between the United Kingdom and France. This fight is not just about Iraq, nor is it entirely about Europe's relations with the United States. At issue is also who calls the shots on the E.U.'s still cacophonous foreign policy.

What drew Chirac's ire was the prominent place of E.U. candidate countries in two declarations of general support for a U.N.-sanctioned military action against Iraq. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joined Denmark, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the U.K. in a letter last month. Earlier this month another letter was signed by five more countries Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia who will join the E.U. in May 2004. Two other signatories, Bulgaria and Romania, hope to join in 2007. "The trans-Atlantic community ... must stand together to face the threat posed by the nexus of terrorism and dictators with weapons of mass destruction," read the latest missive, before going on to declare that the signers considered Iraq "in material breach" of Security Council Resolution 1441.

All that was on the table when the E.U. met in Brussels for a special session to thrash out a common position on Iraq early last week. France had already inveigled the Greeks, who currently preside over the European Council, to retract the invitation to candidate countries, thus shutting out their input in this particular exercise of an E.U. diplomatic specialty: finding the lowest common denominator among disparate positions.

Even without pro-American easterners, the 15 heads of state and government faced a tough challenge squaring Germany's staunch opposition to any military intervention with the U.K.'s firm support for one. The final declaration that emerged stated "war is not inevitable," while acknowledging that with U.N. approval it is an option, though "only as a last resort." Bracing stuff. The Germans managed to strike out a warning to Iraq that "time is running out." There was a sense that outright failure had been deftly avoided, but within the hour Chirac took the stage and his quarrelsome tone melted the consensus.

In examining the motives for Chirac's outburst, many reached for metaphors more suited to family therapy than international politics. "Every time I have a dispute with my wife, I shout at my sons," said Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. "So Mr. Chirac's problem is apparently with the Americans, not with Romania and Bulgaria." Ivan Krustev, the director of the Center for Liberal Studies in Sofia, Bulgaria, agreed: "In these situations, you don't hit the one you want, but the one you can. Bulgaria and Romania had the honors." Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said, "In the European family there are no mommies, no daddies and no kids it is a family of equals."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair nevertheless arrogated the role of father protector. "People who want to pull Europe and America apart are playing the most dangerous game of international politics I know," he said; that was for Chirac. Blair then sent a letter of his own to the candidate countries, primly reminding them that "I had argued that you should be present and able to contribute fully to the debate." How could they help but love him?

Involvement in any war is a largely academic matter for most of the countries to the east of the current E.U. 15. Not for Turkey, though. Last week the only NATO ally that shares a border with Iraq along with a significant Kurdish minority held out against American pressure to begin deploying thousands of troops in preparation for an attack on the north of the country. Four cargo ships carrying tanks and heavy equipment, the vanguard of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, were unable to unload at Turkish ports last week.

While the U.S. views deployment in Turkey as an urgent need, the government of Abdullah Gul has seen little cause to rush. Ankara doesn't want to repeat the first Gulf War, which it claims caused more than $30 billion in uncompensated economic losses. Popular opposition to the war is running at an overwhelming 94%, according to the most recent poll, and Turkey fears that a U.S. military campaign could cripple tourism, lead to an influx of Iraqi refugees and most ominously favor the formation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

The principles behind the dispute have faded behind a discussion of money. In exchange for its go-ahead, the U.S. has offered Turkey $6 billion in grants and guarantees for up to $20 billion in loans. For its part, Ankara demanded up to $32 billion in aid, including up to $10 billion in grants and the freedom to decide how the money is spent. Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis indicated on Friday that "broad agreement" had been reached and negotiators resumed marathon talks to hammer out details over the weekend. But there will be no green light until the Turkish parliament signs off on any deal, and until it does, most likely early this week, the U.S. Navy will remain in military purgatory.

Romania, too, has some direct involvement in a future conflict. Last week at least 10 Hercules transport aircraft carrying hundreds of American soldiers landed in Romania's Black Sea port of Constanta, which has been slated to serve as a transit station for Iraq-bound equipment. The Romanian media speculated that in the unlikely event that Turkey denied the U.S. access to its bases, Constanta could be used instead.

But Europe's internal fractures weren't just about America; they also had to do with Europe's vision of itself. What especially rankles the Central Europeans is the feeling that France is somehow claiming founders' rights within the E.U. to set new standards of conduct. But the rules have been clear for a decade: a commitment to and practice of the Copenhagen criteria for democracy, market economy and respect for human rights. Last week what candidates have long criticized as an overly technocratic process of admission to the E.U., marred by constant delays, suddenly seemed supplemented by a loyalty test to France's position. Says Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga: "Nowhere in the Copenhagen criteria does it say we cannot speak our minds."

The E.U. is still a long way from being a monolith, and it isn't likely that France's superpower status within the E.U. will be scuttled by a couple of angry remarks. In the end the 10 new members of the E.U. will form ad hoc alliances, much as current E.U. members do. And those alliances probably won't fall into any neat "old" vs. "new" Europe divisions, but will shift as often as the specific issues at hand. But it's hard to see how Chirac's needless rancor last week won him any friends or influence. No one likes getting pushed around by the second or third-biggest guy on the block, when getting pushed around by the biggest guy is bad enough.

With reporting by Joe Kirwin/Brussels, Tadeusz L. Kucharski/Warsaw, J.F.O. McAllister/London, Mihai Radu/Bucharest, Violeta Simeonova/Sofia, Jan Stojaspal/Prague and Pelin Turgut/Istanbul