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Iraq Special Report
Split on Iraq Points Up Europe's Disunity

By Charles Trueheart
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 27, 1998; Page A29

AMSTERDAM, Feb. 26—In the weeks and days that could have led to U.S. airstrikes against Iraq, anxious European nations once again confronted an uncomfortable reality: Economic union may be in the works, but Europe is a continent politically divided.

On the eve of a new common currency system that will tie Europe together economically as never before, and with ambitious plans to expand eastward to forge a massive European market, the European Union steered a wobbly diplomatic course during the Iraqi crisis that betrayed the continent's persistent clash of national interests.

Britain sided staunchly with the United States, and it is the only nation to have contributed substantial military forces to the U.S. buildup in the Persian Gulf.

France, on the other hand, took an independent course, holding out for a diplomatic solution much like the one U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan reached in Baghdad, temporarily defusing the crisis.

Germany supported the U.S. position politically, but domestic political considerations made Chancellor Helmut Kohl uneasy about contributing militarily. In deference to German sensitivities, the United States never asked. The Netherlands took a position closer to Britain's than to France's, like other European governments finding its comfortable place on the spectrum of diplomatic nuance.

"No wonder the rest of the world is confused about what Europe's common position is," lamented the European, an English-language weekly. "It does not have one."

How far it is from having one was apparent as soon as the crisis eased this week. Knives were unsheathed and the target was Britain, which holds the rotating EU presidency and thus speaks for Europe until June 30.

In France, the leader of the governing Socialist Party group in the National Assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of playing "follow-the-leader. . . . The British prime minister is more concerned about slavishly following the United States than harmonizing his viewpoint with the Europeans."

Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo faulted the British government for ignoring its responsibility as the current official consensus-builder on European diplomatic policy. "I'm unhappy with what happened. There was very little discussion," he said today.

The problem of reaching a consensus -- required under EU rules for a common foreign policy position -- is particularly acute when the rotating head is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, as are France and Britain.

"These countries are accustomed to look at their Security Council responsibilities as only national ones," van Mierlo said in an interview, "and it's especially complicated when they represent two extremes of opinion," as they did over the right approach to Iraq. "So it was almost impossible to have a common position."

Every step forward in Europe's march toward monetary union and economic unification poses an awkward contrast to the EU's unwillingness or inability to act as a diplomatic ensemble. The recent pattern of frustration had its ignominious beginnings in the early 1990s as European governments anguished over the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the war that followed.

Europe, emerging from its Cold War deference to the United States, claimed to want to take more responsibility for security on the continent. But after a largely ineffective false start, France, Britain and other European countries ended up joining what remains a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

Laurent Joffrin, editor of the French daily Liberation, drew this gloomy conclusion: "Willingly confined to the balcony of history, Europe will let someone else settle its problems. 'Someone else' meaning the only world power capable of it: the United States of America."

The existence of NATO for 50 years, providing Europe with an inexpensive blanket of U.S.-dominated security during the Cold War, has much to do with the European fumbling today for an indigenous military and political alliance.

Even as the United States seeks to encourage a greater role for European countries in their defense and security, the continent's armies and arsenals are being shrunk -- in part to meet budget criteria required for membership in the European Monetary Union that will replace 11 existing currencies with the euro over the next three years.

But these military realities do not fully explain European diplomatic hesitancy and disarray.

During Albania's political turmoil last year, which spilled thousands of refugees into Italy, the Italian government was unable to get the protective police force it sought, with French and Greek support, from the European Union. The Germans and the Dutch, among others, balked at entering a risky, confused situation. The EU, however, mustered a humanitarian aid package.

As the death toll in Algeria's six-year struggle with terrorism has climbed to 70,000 and higher, the EU has been paralyzed by inaction over violence just across the Mediterranean Sea.

In areas where there is a European desire to play a constructive role -- notably the Middle East -- leaders here complain that the United States refuses to share responsibility.

What is more, van Mierlo said, the "arrogance" of Washington's go-it-alone approach and its close ties to Israel feed the widely held perception in the region that the United States lines up with Israel, and Europe with the Palestinians, and this shatters the effectiveness of both would-be peace brokers.

It has another consequence. "By not giving Europe a role, that makes it harder for Europeans to get unanimity" on a common position, van Mierlo added, for it encourages individual European countries, notably France, to strike out alone.

Skeptics of the European idea often point out that while the United States became a single market as a consequence of political union, Europe is betting on the less-likely reverse: that political unity will flow from economic integration.

For editor Joffrin, the heart of the problem is a failure of sufficient European ambition. "The founders of [a unified] Europe didn't think of it as a mere free-trade zone governed by a council of bankers," he said. "They dreamed of a political union founded not on exchange rates but on a civilizing vision."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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