Politicus: At EU, another blow to anti-American bloc

Posted in Europe | 22-Jun-04 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

French President Jacques Chirac (R) talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (L) the second day of an European Union heads of state and governments summit in Brussels June 18, 2004.
BRUSSELS In the run-up to the Iraq war, Gerhard Schröder explained behind closed doors that he was opposing the United States' position because "European sovereignty" was in the balance, and that French-German determination on the issue would affect Europe's development over "the next 10 to 15 years." Offered up in February 2003 to political friends in Berlin as he and Jacques Chirac formed a rejection front, this evaluation showed the chancellor at his most perversely prescient. Back then, beyond the details of the Iraq debate, Schröder was unmistakably referring to the attempt by France and Germany to reassert their leadership in Europe by gathering European Union governments behind them to block the Americans' war.

With the help of NATO loyalists like Britain, Denmark and Portugal, plus the weight of Chirac's clumsy bullying of new EU and NATO members from the former Soviet bloc, the French-German plan unraveled within less than a month.

The circumstances around the effort's collapse not only confirmed the instincts of Schröder and Chirac and their concern that American influence was going to be the big winner in the EU's expansion to 25 members. More, it profoundly marked those new members from the East, who regarded the French and Germans as willing to undermine the U.S. presence in Europe - the single credible guarantee of their sovereignty, in the view of the old Warsaw Pact group.

Now, just a year later, an EU summit meeting has produced approval of a draft constitution that in no way turns the Europeans into a united world player, pressed eye-to-eye against the Americans. Alongside this nonconfrontational text came the rejection of a French- and German-backed candidate for the job of president of the EU's Executive Commission.

In the process, Schröder's private realpolitik explanation for countering the United States on Iraq (getting a hand on European primacy, after winning an election with pacifist votes) took a belated and far-reaching blow.

The EU constitution that will be submitted to the member states for ratification over the next two years gives individual countries the power to veto decisions on foreign affairs and defense, which means no EU security policy constructed in opposition to America has much chance of success. At the same time, the Executive Commission's president, who communicates much of the community's day-to-day attitudes, will not be someone with the ideological baggage of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, the French-German choice, who described Europe's "emancipation" from the United States on security matters as both "inevitable and desirable."

In their own minds, Schröder and Chirac, who led the German chancellor but was less frank in referring to his motives, may have correctly identified their European stakes in relation to the Americans. But the reverberations of their joint Iraq policy concerning Europe's future have gone demonstrably against them.

This description of the new state of play in Europe doesn't come through the disaggregationist prism of a London Euroskeptic group or a Washington think tank, although they might relish it, but with the endorsement of Libération, the leftist, pro-European integration Paris newspaper, whose post-summit viewpoint was a mixture of the forlorn and disabused.

In an analysis and an editorial, the newspaper said that, for lack of any common political will, the constitution was largely empty of new integrating force and that the Europe it reflected would not be a political power. Although Libération did not describe this power further, it is the Europe Puissance of French dreams (and possibly some of Schröder's) that locates the EU's identity in bumping heads with the United States.

Verhofstadt, the newspaper said, "basically didn't make it because his candidacy was proposed by the French-German duo, and their supposed diktat had to be opposed." It characterized the French and the Germans, along with the Belgians and Luxembourgers - who sought last year to set up an EU defense planning headquarters apart from NATO - as impotent in trying to push Europe's new majority of wary minimalists in their direction.

It was in this connection, and out of proportion to the importance of the job he sought, that Verhofstadt embodied the will of France and Germany to find a victory that would deflect the obviousness of a constitution that mandates no great new European power role. Since Schröder and Chirac, coming off major defeats in the previous week's European parliamentary elections, could not politically afford a second failure, they had to accept Tony Blair's insistence that the constitution extend the possibility of national vetoes in the areas of tax and justice, in addition to those of foreign policy and defense.

That left Verhofstadt. According to a European cabinet minister, Blair told Chirac at the G-8 summit meeting at Sea Island, Georgia, barely a week earlier that the Belgian was out of the question. But Chirac remained so fixed on his nomination, the cabinet minister said, that France privately proposed to Poland inserting a reference to Christianity in the EU constitution in exchange for its support of Verhofstadt.

Something on the order of proposing to trade Corsica for Gdansk, the offer went nowhere, the minister said.

Schröder also remained adamant on Verhofstadt. Since Verhofstadt was described among Atlanticists as having a view strongly opposing what is now the European mainstream's notion of getting along with America, this raised the question among Germany's neighbors of Schröder's sincerity in saying recently that he does not want a European counterweight to the United States. To make sure no one could miss his take on what the battle had been all about, Verhofstadt coupled an announcement that he was giving up on his candidacy - the EU leaders will take another shot at finding a successor to Romano Prodi before July - with a suggestion that it was the fault of the Americans and their European toadies.

"I was bit shocked that my country and myself" were described as "anti-Americans," Verhofstadt said, although he offered no accusers' names. He added he was "still proud" of Belgium's attitude on Iraq, which included a personal filibuster to block NATO assistance to Turkey relating to the war.

None of this suggested that efforts wouldn't be made to find a Verhofstadt-like substitute for the next round of bartering on the commission presidency, or that a small, new EU military planning cell won't try to puff itself up with French urging to rival NATO over the long haul.

But a Europe defined in contradiction to the United States has found no new life in what is now the EU's draft constitution. And, as important, after a summit meeting that followed a strikingly unenthusiastic election for the European Parliament, no legitimacy is at hand for a Europe whose powers or vision of itself would go beyond the very clearly delineated caution of its peoples.

John Vinocur can be reached at pagetwo@iht.com.

Tomorrow: Amy Waldman on India's power behind the throne.