Government versus public opinion

Article published on Feb. 24, 2003
community published
Article published on Feb. 24, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The old, national ruling classes are up to their old tricks over European division about Iraq. Meanwhile, at the Convention, reform of the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) has stagnated.

Europe is divided. This seems to be the common perception of the position of the 15 on the Iraqi crisis. This, in spite of the improbable unity affected during the Extraordinary European Council meeting on February 17th, the ambiguous conclusions of which have sealed, yet again, the triumph of diplomatic compromise over deep rooted differences: "Europe is united" was the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi's (grotesque and ignorant) cry on that occasion.

Divide and Rule

But the cracks started to appear long ago; or, to be more precise, the day after the ostentatious displays at Versailles where, on January 22nd, France and Germany had celebrated 40 years of friendship, or even 40 years of determining the entire reconstruction of Europe. However, it was, in fact, Donald Rumsfeld, the American Defence Secretary, who opened the dance with a spectacular piece of timing. For Rumsfeld, Berlin and Paris represented "old Europe", now discredited due to a pointless disagreement with the USA; how different from "new Europe", conspicuously pure, dynamic and, most importantly, ready to yield to American demands.

On January 30th this 'new Europe' personally responded to its call. With a letter, which was made available to half the world's media, the leaders of Spain, Great Britain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal on one hand, and Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary on the other, underlined their support for the line taken by Washington towards Iraq.

But the advance of 'American' Europe did not end there. On February 6th it was the turn of the Vilnius group (1) to declare its own support for the arguments put forward by the Bush Administration in a letter that, ironically, was prepared earlier the same day that Powell presented the 'evidence' against Saddam.

But the moment of truth came on February 14th at the Security Council. On that occasion, the opposing sides set out their stalls with Spain and Great Britain on one side (the sole Council members apart from America to support a future resolution that would authorise the use of force against the Iraqi regime) and France and Germany plus the remaining members of the Council on the other, firmly against such a resolution.

Europe is, therefore, divided and the White House can, thus, hope to gain the necessary European support without which management of a post-Saddam Iraq (reconstruction, investment, refugees etc) could render the country even more dangerous than it is today.

But while the classic Caesarian policy of 'divide and rule' is absolutely in line with traditional American 'Real Politik', the division of European governments is clashing with the spectacular unanimity of public opinion in (old or new Mr. Rumsfeld?) Europe.

Indeed, according to a recent survey of a good 15,000 people in 30 countries across the continent, 80% of European citizens are "against military intervention in Iraq by the US without the endorsement of the UN". Moreover, the number only drops by six points if you only take into account the opinions of the candidate countries, who are the most obvious examples of Washington's new, rampant, European Trojan horses (2). In any case, the figures stabilise at 78% if we take into account all the countries whose citizens will make up European public opinion from 2004. And that is not all; shouldn't we also take into account the 5 million people who filled Europe's squares on February 15th to protest against a future war in Iraq?

So, the European Union is more united than ever. It is its leaders who are out of step.

Common Interests?

So how do you explain this chronic disunion between the positions of many States and public opinion? Today, it is practically impossible for a European country to define its own foreign policy on a matter of vital importance to Washington in an autonomous fashion. The question that many nation states ask themselves is not whether a particular course of action would conform or not to their interests, but whether or not they need to fall in line with the US, that is to say serving American interests.

With 130,000 soldiers still in the Old Continent and 150,000 already surrounding the Iraqi regime in Baghdad, America continues to be the regional power simultaneously in Europe and the Middle East. Great Britain, Spain and Italy - and all of 'new Europe'- are indebted to America, not the EU for their national security. The same is true of the other members of the Union.

And when one European state manages to break away from Washington, it is either because it has succeeded in conserving a small piece of sovereignty in terms of defence, like France, who at the opportune moment will not hesitate to sign up to the imminent coalition in order to determine the new balance of power in the post-war period; or, as in Germany's case, it is merely for reasons of internal policy; witness Schröder's political survival that was due soley to the pacifist line he took that brought him a fragile victory last October.

But, talking about the different levels of dependency on the US is not the same as talking about genuine divergence of interests. In reality, the interests of the different European states in the Middle East converge. Europe is actually far more vulnerable than the US with regard to illegal immigration from the Mediterranean and the stream of refugees, and thanks to its greater dependence on the region's oil, and the serious threat of terrorist networks that, to paraphrase the name of one of the most sorrowfully well-known cases, have found their 'base' in Europe.

As such, Europe cannot just shrink from the conjecture of another war in a region already bloodied by half a century of an Israeli-Palestine conflict which was terribly costly for the Union; conjecture whose risks are unequivacably confronted by the conclusions of the European Council on February 17th, conclusions that also constituted the first text in which the EU evoked the possibility of resorting to force, even if as a last resort.

But why, then, does the EU not speak with one voice? Apart from Atlanticism, the problem is institutional. The CFSP does not work because it is based on an essentially intergovernmental structure. It is a structure that tends, therefore, to sharpen national differences that, in the Iraqi crisis and the Israeli question, do not spring from genuine differences but are due to the different weight each ruling power gives to its relationship with Washington. International division is the curse of the CFSP. It is a blessing for American imperialism.

Of course, one might say, there is always the Convention. But, as it so happens, in the face of general indifference, on December 16th the Convention's seventh working group on "External Action" published a Final Report that, without proposing much more than some elementary principles for the future 'Constitutional treaty' (sic), limited itself to calling forth the fusion of the current functions of the Representative of the CFSP and the Commissioner for External Affairs.

But more confusion of powers is just what the CFSP does not need. As Schumpeter points out, balanced institutions are based on a clear and precise bestowal of powers to act and control. It is clear that the European organ is capable of acting in foreign policy from a legitimate base, albeit indirect, through the voting booths (as proposed at the Convention by France and Germany). It must not just be the Commission alone (3). Moreover, the power to control should be in the hands of a bicameral Parliament that includes the current Council and a European Parliament whose members are finally provided with the function that they are still scandalously denied: the right to initiate legislation. Such a 'democratic' solution is, for the moment, light years away from the drafts currently in the hands of Giscard d'Estaing. But it should be the starting point for making an effective CFSP that is currently illegitimate.

'New Europe' is an contrivance removed from the reality of European public opinion. It is the off-spring of an anachronistic and pointless institutional division that is kept alive, shamefully, by a ruling class that fears being swept away by an unfortunately still remote democratisation of the European institutions.

(1) Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Baltic Republics, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

(2) Cfr. Adriano Farano, "From the Atlantic to the East" in "Enlargement: objective 2004", cafe babel, 24 October 2002.

(3) In the Franco-German proposal, however, they propose not granting the Commission any powers to define the CFSP.