Europe After the War in Iraq

Family Feud

Blair and Chirac
Bonhomous Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac in easier days, Feb. 4, 2003 (Photo: Patrick Kovarick/AFP).

Reflecting on the transatlantic divide over Iraq in an article for London’s liberal Guardian just after the war began, American commentator  Robert Kagan joked that Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. Certainly, the war has brought into focus the stark differences in worldviews on either side of the Atlantic, but it could also be said that the Europeans might need several small planets to themselves, such is the diversity of opinion on the continent.

European unity was a casualty of the war in Iraq even before the first shots were fired. Britain went one way, taking Spain, Italy, and others along with it in its support for the United States. France, Germany, and Russia led opposition to military intervention, reflecting largely united public opinion within the European Union (EU). Now the war has been declared a coalition victory, E.U. leaders are left pondering the defeat of cherished ideals such as a common European foreign policy. Are these ideals now further away than ever?

London’s liberal Guardian summed up the widespread dismay even before the war began: “In a year that was meant to see all Europe coming together through its constitutional convention and eastward enlargement, all [of] Europe [fell] apart,” columnist Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Feb. 20 edition. Referring to the convention’s proposals for a new name for Europe, Ash added: “The real Europe has just suggested a fifth: ‘Divided Europe.’ If Giscard d’Estaing [the president of the convention] is not careful, he will be like an elderly grandfather at a birthday party exclaiming: ‘Oh, what a happy family we are!’ while plates fly across the rooms, the cousins are arm-wrestling behind the sofa, and son and daughter are muttering about divorce in the kitchen.”

Ash noted Jacques Chirac’s comment that Poland and others who backed the war had “lost a good opportunity to keep quiet,” implying that they could still be refused access to the European Union and the backlash Chirac’s comments created. Hardly, Ash wrote, evidence of the kind of attitude that encourages unity.

On March 24, soon after fighting began in Iraq, Paris’ liberal Le Monde wrote that exclusion from the E.U. club might even have driven Romania into U.S. arms. “Romania has been knocking at Europe’s door too long,” the paper’s editors wrote. But Budapest’s independent Magyar Hirlap, in its March 27 editorial, offered a different explanation: “It is no coincidence that countries in eastern and central Europe should be more willing to accept America’s position. Here, images of the great leader waving his arms at huge military parades are still fresh in people’s memories.”

The lack of a common E.U. position left others stuck somewhere in the middle. Summing up the dilemma facing its government in its March 18 editorial, Vienna’s conservative Die Presse wrote that Austria could not simply accept an E.U. or U.N. stance “because there is no unanimity in those bodies.”

Despite the disunity over the war, many are hopeful that the conflict might give the E.U. new impetus. In an April 11 editorial commenting on that day's summit of French, German, and Russian leaders to discuss defense, Le Monde argued that the three’s “disagreements with the United States over the armed intervention in Iraq have convinced them of the urgency of a credible European defence project, even if only a small vanguard group is involved at an early stage.”

The Parisian daily was not alone in hoping that the crisis may prove an opportunity for the E.U. to galvanize itself. In a March 27 editorial, Berlin’s centrist Der Tagesspiegel applauded Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s plans for more defense spending: “Those who say ‘no’ to American domination must say ‘yes’ to more European responsbility and must face up to hard tasks.”

But the centrist French weekly L’Express’ April 7 editorial pointed out that—without Britain—a common E.U. defense policy “would be beyond the union’s wildest dreams.” Despite being widely derided for going against the European grain by backing President George Bush, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair is seen by many commentators as indispensable bridge between the United States and Europe.

Bernd Ulrich, in a leader for the April 10 edition of the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit wrote that Europeans must learn lessons from the Iraq crisis. “The Europeans will be unable to put a brake on American militarism unless they take their own idealistic impulse seriously.” Die Zeit proposed a summit of all the world’s democracies to reconcile different views on how to protect the interests of democratic societies around the world.

But for now, at least, the Europeans are still struggling to agree on anything. The coalition victory has exposed splits in the antiwar axis. The Kremlin is said to be anxious to restore good relations with Washington, while Chirac (whom Libération called “the King of Peace without a crown” in an April 11 editorial), has faced criticism for not enthusing about the outcome of the war. Germany alone insists that it will take part in the reconstruction of Iraq only if it is done under the auspices of the United Nations. Unity on this last issue is especially important, Libération’s editors wrote, because backing a U.N. role “would give E.U. members a goal around which to unite.”

If not, we can expect to hear the crash of plates being thrown at the next big E.U. party.