A divided Europe

Print edition : March 14, 2003

British Prime Minister Tony Blair. - DAVID CHESKIN/AP

The Iraqi crisis has brought to the fore schisms within the European Union and NATO which will reverberate long after a probable war.

THE divisions inside the United Nations on how to deal with Iraq are finding an echo within Europe and could well have significant ramifications for the future cohesion of the continent.

The gap between the position of the United States and the United Kingdom and of the Franco-German alliance seems to grow daily and is nowhere more apparent than in the corridors of the very body that is meant to bring cohesion to Western European defence policy, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

NATO was set up in 1949 as an alliance to contain the perceived threat from the Soviet Union. In retaliation, the Soviets set up the Warsaw Pact, and the Cold War set in to determine the shape of Europe for four decades.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union two years later, NATO strategists felt vindicated and triumphant - the old formulation that NATO was "to keep the Yanks in, the Russians out and the Germans down" had worked.

More perceptive critics, though, realised that NATO was more vulnerable. For, having "won" the Cold War, what was to be its raison d'etre? The old, simmering debate between those, led by France, who wanted a purely European defence force, more closely allied with the European Union (E.U.), and those, led by the U.K., who wanted the U.S. permanently tied into European defence, grew warmer.

Post-1989, NATO received a fresh lease of life in two distinct ways. First, NATO offered a half-way house for the former Soviet satellites, who wanted to move westwards politically but who were not considered ready for the membership of the E.U. (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic). Secondly, NATO emerged as a readymade enforcer of U.N. decisions in the Kosovo/Serbia dispute.

In the immediate aftermath of "9/11", this latter role was clearly envisaged by NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, who announced that the attacks in the U.S. could be construed as an act of war on a NATO member-state and that NATO stood ready to offer it military help. To the consternation of NATO, the U.S. decided to act alone; the post-"9/11" war on terrorism was to be led by the Pentagon, and the U.S. was and remains in no mood to give the Europeans a say in the war strategy or the execution of that strategy. So, NATO finds itself once more potentially redundant.

This resentment was the cause of the bizarre but revealing bickering in NATO last fortnight, when France, Belgium and Germany initially refused to answer Turkey's call for support in the eventuality of attacks from Iraq. In essence, the Turks had every reason to feel aggrieved, for NATO is a defence pact, or it is nothing. France's argument was that to respond would heighten the tension just when it was, rather cleverly, manoeuvring in the U.N. to postpone any attack on Iraq. The French do not regard the discovery of some weapons in Iraq as a good reason for war; instead they regard it as a sign that the disarmament-by-inspection strategy is working and should be given more time.

Blair may not have helped his own cause and that of the U.S. by organising a letter to The Times, London, from eight European leaders supporting the U.S., a round robin which he did not deign to ask the French and the Germans to sign. France duly hit back with a Franco-German plan for further U.N. inspections.

Eventually, the NATO dispute was side-stepped by a procedural trick. The decision to respond to Turkey's request for aid was delegated to a subcommittee of NATO on which France, conveniently, does not have a place.

Within the U.S. there is a long history of distaste for European entanglements, a distaste graphically expressed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's sneering dismissal of "Old Europe". Indeed, this distaste for internationalism goes further and strikes at the very core of the U.S.' commitment to multilateral international institutions.

Bush has been brutally clear that the U.S. reserves the right to act in its own interests, whatever the world says. That could well spell the demise of the U.N. in its present form; more certainly, it will spell the effective demise of NATO.

For Premier Blair his dream of the U.K. being "at the heart of Europe" wanes daily and as dramatically as Charles de Gaulle's old prophecy that the U.K. would be the "American Trojan horse in Europe" is waxing.

As Russia seems to draw closer to the French position on Iraq, so another of de Gaulle's concepts gathers momentum, that is, of a "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals". De Gaulle quite certainly had in mind the Atlantic coast of France and not that of Britain.

The Iraq conflict is proving that politically the English Channel is far wider than the Atlantic Ocean.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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