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SHOWDOWN WITH IRAQ | NEWS ANALYSIS

Europe Is Taking a Prewar Hit

Disagreement on Iraq reveals a power struggle over which countries should lead the region.

February 19, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

BRUSSELS — Amid all the sparring over Iraq that has shaken the historical ties between the United States and Europe, another cherished notion now seems in doubt: a United States of Europe.

Tensions over how to disarm Baghdad have laid bare the discord bubbling beneath the surface of the continent, diminishing hopes for a common foreign policy and turning the European Union -- politically, at least -- into something of a contradiction in terms.

Earlier this week, the leaders of the 15-member EU put on a show of unanimity by issuing a joint declaration calling on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to give up any weapons of mass destruction he possesses. But the statement, which skirted the crucial question of when he must comply, just papered over widening European fault lines.

"They've really advertised for the whole world to see to what extent they are divided and to what extent, on their ambition to have a common European foreign policy, they have clearly failed to deliver one," said Steven Everts, an analyst with the Center for European Reform in London. "It's made a mockery of the idea."

The Iraq debate pits the traditional heart of Europe, France and Germany, against countries that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has dubbed "the new Europe": Britain, Spain, Italy and the up-and-coming nations in the east. But the imbroglio over Iraq is more symptom than cause, a manifestation of a larger power struggle over who will get to dominate the region, define what it stands for and determine where its future lies.

For decades, advocates of a united Europe have dreamed of creating a superstate able to counter the U.S. with its own economic might and a distinctive approach to world affairs, one with an emphasis on liberal values and multilateralism.

In some important ways, the EU has delivered on those promises. Economically, it is now the world's largest trading bloc. Twelve countries share a common currency, the euro, which has given the dollar a run.

And politically, there is talk of a new constitution that would integrate European nations more thoroughly than ever, perhaps under the leadership of a permanent EU president.

France and Germany, the continent's heavyweights, have been the most ardent supporters of a more thoroughgoing union and, not surprisingly, have cast themselves as its natural leaders. Romantics like to think of the two countries as ideal mates, a complementary duo combining the still significantly rural, bon vivant nature of France with the industrial, crisply efficient character of Germany.

Together, the two have dictated much of the EU's agenda, such as the introduction of the euro. But as Paris and Berlin celebrated 40 years of such friendship and cooperation last month, other European states were fuming at what they perceive as the highhandedness of the Franco-German alliance.

The Iraq controversy broke this resentment wide open. Irritated by repeated Franco-German reservations about a possible war with Iraq, eight European nations signed a letter late last month in support of the Bush administration. Soon afterward, a group of 10 Eastern European nations also endorsed the American position.

Some experts detected efforts by Washington to actively divide Europeans, to undermine their attempt to form a counterweight to American power.

But there was an element of internecine sniping as well.

"It was also serious backlash against the manner in which the French and Germans have been repositioning themselves as the elite couple of the EU," said Francois Heisbourg, a former French defense official who now runs a Paris think tank.

Analysts say the French, especially, are keen to cement their role as part of the "leading group" of the EU before 10 other nations, in the south and east, join the club, as they are scheduled to do next year.

The new members are likely to be more pro-American in outlook than France or Germany. Economically, they may see their future as inextricably bound with Europe's, but for security and defense, they still prefer to tether themselves to the U.S., to the dismay of Paris and Berlin.

France's aversion to this state of affairs was on display in a remarkable diatribe Monday by President Jacques Chirac.

No sooner had he hailed the EU's joint declaration on Iraq than Chirac launched into a tirade against the aspiring EU nations for supporting the American position.

Chirac labeled their actions "infantile" and "dangerous" and accused them of missing "a great opportunity to shut up." On Tuesday, some of their leaders struck back, calling Chirac irrational and undemocratic.

The tug of war over foreign policy is at the core of the issue of who speaks for Europe and where the union is headed.

Over the last several years, there has been notable improvement in European cooperation on foreign policy. On Jan. 1, the EU formally took over policing Bosnia-Herzegovina from the United Nations. It is also assembling a rapid-response force of 60,000 troops to conduct humanitarian missions.

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