Sat, 22 Feb 2003

France's threat to European unity

Jirm Pehe, Director of NYU, Prague, Project Syndicate

At the end of the EU summit in Brussels on Monday -- a meeting held to bridge the growing schism over the Union's policy on Iraq -- French President Jacques Chirac committed a diplomatic blunder that rivaled U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's snide remarks about "old and new Europe." Chirac chided EU candidate countries for behaving irresponsibly when they expressed support for America's effort to disarm Iraq with the use of force if need be.

The French president spoke of "infantilism" on the part of the candidate countries and said that they should have consulted first with the EU or else remained silent. He also suggested that those countries were putting their chances of joining the EU in jeopardy.

But it is the EU itself that has been jeopardized by Chirac's outburst. Many people in the candidate countries have long been convinced that their countries won't be admitted to the EU as equals. Their objections range from lower farm subsidies for the candidate countries to the new decision-making mechanism in the EU that was adopted at the Nice summit two years ago. Many people view that mechanism as being intended to strengthen the power of the EU's big members to the detriment of small countries.

Public opinion in some candidate countries was ambivalent about the EU even before Chirac's remarks. Now, anti-EU attitudes could well become stronger. Even stalwart supporters of EU membership may feel that their countries are not being treated as equals if they are bullied for holding a different opinion than bigger members. At any rate, Chirac has handed Euroskeptics new ammunition with which to target the "no" vote ahead of EU membership referenda in the candidate countries later this year.

France and Germany fail to grasp that the candidate countries' support for the U.S. is not aimed against "old Europe." It is simply an expression of gratitude to the U.S. for helping to bring down Communism and, more recently, for pressing ahead with NATO enlargement -- despite objections from Russia -- at a time when the EU was hopelessly dragging its feet with regard to its own enlargement.

Small states in the middle of Europe that have been victims of aggression throughout their history should not be blamed for believing that the U.S. remains the only real guarantor of their security. The EU, despite much talking, has not come close to developing a common defense policy.

Nor should France and Germany regard support for the U.S. in the candidate countries as tantamount to approval of a war against Iraq or any other country. Indeed, public opinion in all candidate countries is against a military action in Iraq. The candidate countries have simply shown loyalty to the U.S. at a time when the U.S. needs them. Perhaps more to the point, they feel that as long as a European security system is not in place, they may yet need the U.S. to defend their security and independence.

The candidate countries are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they refuse to express support for the U.S., on whom they rely for their security, the Americans will regard them as disloyal. When they implicitly refused to support the anti- American stances of France and Germany in the current crisis, they were seen as disloyal to the EU.

But acknowledging the East Europeans' dilemma is in no way to forgive Chirac's arrogant blow against the unity of the Continent as a whole. The most offensive -- and dangerous -- aspect of his statement was its equation of the EU with France and Germany. He did not attack Great Britain, Spain, or Italy for their pro- American stance as he did for the East Europeans, which made his remarks sound all the more jarring to the ears of people in the candidate countries. Even so, he seemed to be telling them that France and Germany come first, ahead of all other current members, to say nothing of the candidate countries.

Chirac's remarks highlight the EU's distance from its ideal of equality for all of its members. Indeed, his broadside may effectively kill some of the reforms, currently being discussed at the EU Convention, which aim to streamline decision-making within the EU by creating institutions that would, in effect, give more power to countries with bigger populations.

Such reforms can work only if the big member states do not succumb to the temptation to use these mechanisms to bypass or ride roughshod over the interests of the small countries. Chirac's outburst is so damaging to European unity precisely because it undermines this most fundamental kernel of trust.