The French finance minister was "profoundly vexed." The German foreign minister called on everyone to "cool down." When asked, the French environment minister said, "If you knew what I felt like telling Mr. Rumsfeld . . ." but refused to go on, saying that the words she wished to use were too offensive. "Old Europe Kicks Back" is how the headline in the French newspaper Liberation summed up the reaction to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's comments about European support for U.S. policy in Iraq. "You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France," he told reporters last week. "I don't. I think that's old Europe."
Old Europe. If Rumsfeld had been deliberately searching for a way to simultaneously irritate the leadership of Europe's two largest countries, expose their deepest national insecurities and undermine the entire European Union political project, which has long revolved around a "Franco-German axis," he couldn't have found a better way to put it. He was also, as it happens, correct, possibly more correct than he knows. Although all concerned vociferously deny it, Europe is indeed beginning to divide -- slowly, unevenly but perceptibly -- into two very distinct camps.
Certainly this is true where European attitudes on Iraq are concerned. On the one hand, France and Germany, both now on the Security Council, want to let the U.N. weapons inspections continue, seemingly indefinitely, seemingly regardless of how much Iraq does or does not cooperate. On the other hand, Britain and Spain -- also on the Security Council this year -- are just about as fed up with the whole thing as Rumsfeld. The Spanish government has already offered to let the United States use its bases in case of war. The British have offered to send more than 30,000 troops, an enormous proportion of the British army.
Add the Italians (who are offering airspace), the Danes (who are offering military support) and Eastern Europe (the Poles and Czechs have agreed to provide material support; the Hungarians have let Iraqi opposition groups train on their territory) and a clearer definition of "New Europe" begins to emerge. Britain, Italy, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, the Czech Republic: Perhaps not coincidentally, these are all countries that have recently undergone (or are undergoing) economic liberalization, privatization and labor-market reforms that have brought their economies at least marginally closer to ours. These are also countries that have, over the years, felt resentful of French and especially German domination of the European continent.
It's hardly surprising that this group of countries should feel broadly more sympathetic to the United States -- the only power large enough to balance Germany -- or that they should reveal their sympathy in ways other than support for U.S. policy in Iraq. Just last week, Spain arrested 16 suspected members of al Qaeda. Italian police rounded up five others, while a further seven were arrested in London. French and German police have helped too, but the attitude of their politicians isn't always so helpful. At one point, Germany's justice minister actually refused to hand over evidence incriminating Zacarias Moussaoui, the al Qaeda operative, on the grounds that it might be used to invoke the death penalty in his case.
But perhaps it isn't surprising that Germany and France have chosen this particular historical moment to demonstrate their unity either. In 1952, when the precursor to the European Union contained six countries, Germany and France did indeed dominate European politics. By 2004, when the latest round of enlargement is complete, the EU will contain 25 countries. Eastern European members will jointly have more delegates to the European Parliament than Germany. Britain, Spain, Italy and Poland will easily outvote Germany and France in the weighted voting system of the European Council. Sometimes, strident language is a sign of waning influence, not growing strength.
I don't want to exaggerate the depth of the differences or overplay the unity of the "New Europe." British opinion polls are indeed running soundly against the war in Iraq. Much of the Italian and Spanish media are profoundly anti-American. For that matter, support for American policy in Iraq might be found in France and Germany if the Bush administration, Rumsfeld included, cared enough to promote it. Nevertheless, differences remain -- so when foreign reactions to the president's State of the Union speech are quoted today, do find out which countries are speaking in the name of "Europe" before drawing conclusions.