Unity of Europe cracking on approach to Iraqi war


BRUSSELS, Belgium - Corine Devillers sells a varied lot. Little flags on skinny sticks are for sale next to sweat shirts folded on shelves, hats hanging on pegs, pencils resting in cases, posters stuck to walls and tiny stuffed bears snuggling in the windows. In many ways, though, she is selling only one product: white elephants.

She works on the edge of the Grand Place, one of Europe's most impressive public squares, at a shop called Eurostore. The flags, the shirts, the hats - virtually everything she sells - are adorned with a circle of 15 stars, the emblem of the European Union, itself a symbol of European unity, something that no longer exists.

"You hear these things, 'The European Disunion,'" said Devillers, 28, after making an increasingly rare sale, a pencil, to a tourist. "For me, it is depressing. For me, that is a bad joke."

The split among European countries is no laughing matter for those here - the "capital of Europe" and home of the European Union - who have worked for decades to unify the continent only to see it split, deeply, over Iraq.

The quest for unity has been set back years, according to diplomats, politicians and European intellectuals, and mending the divisions could take years.

The primary countries pitted against each other are France and Germany on one side and Britain and Spain on the other, with other European countries choosing a side.

Acrimony among the countries has grown in the past few weeks, and the repercussions go well beyond the walls of the Eurostore. The repercussions, in fact, go well beyond Europe. Among the countries with the most to lose because of the split is the United States.

Without a common European voice, said Dominique Moisi, senior adviser of the French Institute of International Relations, building any trans-Atlantic consensus on how to tackle problems such as the rebuilding of Iraq, the war on terrorism and the nuclear threat from North Korea could prove as difficult as reaching agreement on invading Iraq.

"Europe is one of the key casualties of this war with Iraq - and it has not even started yet, and I think people here are aware of that," Moisi said. "The United States has been hurt, too, but in Washington there is an indifference to this. I think that's a mistake in the long term. Put it this way: America can win the war alone, but America cannot win the peace alone. A divided Europe has never been good for the prospects for peace in the world."

The Bush administration's substitution of pre-emption for containment, the Cold War policy that was forged by Dean Acheson as secretary of state in the Truman administration, has caused great concern in most parts of Europe.

Even more troubling to many Europeans who see value in a united continent, is what they see as apathy from the Bush administration over splits in Europe. Since the end of World War II, every U.S. government has sought a united Europe.

When diplomat John Foster Dulles argued against requiring extensive reparations of Germany after the war, he horrified many members of Congress.

For example, after the war, the United States decided that a united Europe was good for American foreign policy and decided to help rebuild Germany, helping it integrate into Europe, instead of punishing it with reparations.

U.S. foreign policy now, said Christoph Bertram, director of the German Institute for International Security Affairs in Berlin, does not offer even the pretense of being concerned about splits in Europe.

"America has been the midwife of European unity, but it seems to me it has abandoned that role," Bertram said. "If the United States is interested in pushing immediate and narrow interests forward, this picking and choosing and playing European countries against each other can be beneficial. If it's interested in long-term stability, I think history clearly tells you that a united Europe is your best bet."

Unity, he said, is also good for Europe, and the current dispute over Iraq could ultimately serve as a reminder that if it does not act as one, Europe does not have much influence on world events. That was proved when the United States intervened in the Balkans after European nations, beset by infighting, failed to solve the conflict there.

The weakness spawned by disunity is showing itself again with Iraq, Bertram said. He points out that France has been trying to avoid a war from the outside, by opposing the United States; Britain has been trying to avoid a war, in his view, from the inside by trying to influence the United States through aligning itself with the Bush administration.

Both strategies seem almost certainly doomed to failure. Whether the United States has added to the problem is an open question, but there are strong feelings it has not helped to close the divide.

"The relevant question," Bertram said, "is, would their influence have been greater - would Europe's influence have been greater - if those countries in particular had presented a common voice? If this war that seems so likely goes ahead, the answer is their influence was irrelevant, if there was any at all."

The European Union began in 1950 in search of that unified voice, with mixed results. Then, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands decided that membership in a common organization could help them economically and, more important in the aftermath of World War II, diplomatically.

Since then, the union has been joined by Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Finland and Sweden. Thirteen Eastern and Southern European countries are in line for membership.

Most visibly, its success has been in settling on a currency, the euro, that is common to most of the countries, and a common market that has strengthened Europe's economic place in the world considerably.

Next month, the union is to take a symbolic step forward in its quest for a common military by sending about 800 troops to take over for NATO in Macedonia.

The introduction of the euro replaced most individual currencies, but moves toward a common military have done little to move the European Union toward a common foreign policy. Thus, a letter was signed last month by Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Denmark in support of U.S. policy on Iraq, which, in Europe, only widened the divide.

The European Union did agree unanimously Feb. 17 on its own statement, again calling for Saddam Hussein to disarm. Noticeably missing from the statement, though, was agreement on what the world should do if disarmament fails.

"What we have is some agreement on basics but no agreement beyond that," said Aristide Agathocles, permanent representative to the European Union from Greece, which holds the organization's presidency. "Our job, our responsibility, is now to keep those basic agreements and see how matters evolve."

Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for Javier Solana, the union's foreign policy chief, said, "I admit there is a certain amount of frustration, because this is an issue of war and peace. It's so important, and yet we haven't been able to reach a common position. What is positive is that this is about Iraq and can be kept to being only about Iraq."

That doesn't seem to be the case. After the eight European countries signed the letter of support for the United States, French President Jacques Chirac threatened the three whose admission to the union is pending - Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland - with exclusion.

"I think there is a deep divide right now and, unfortunately, I think it's going to be long-lasting," said Moisi of the French institute.

A senior diplomat at the European Union, who insisted that his name not be used, said the organization failed in the Balkans because its efforts at forging foreign policy then were relatively new.

Trying to decide on a common foreign policy, he said, is a new venture. He described Chirac as speaking in the heat of the moment and predicted that eventually, the countries would get back together.

Bertram of the German institute is not so sure. He said all parties have had opportunities to compromise but have continued to lead the opposing factions.

"Europe being seen as a counterweight to the United States has been exposed as nonsense," he said. "There will be an effort to paper over some of the problems in Europe, but the structural damage has been done. The result is, the European Union has been a symbol of security for the man on the street in Europe. The man on the street in Europe now feels less secure."

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