Euro-smugness gets a free ride

European leaders are making the most of America's crisis over Iraq.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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By ordinary standards, Europe ought to be in the doldrums. Its proposed constitution remains problematic; its leading power Germany is in a state of political introspection and inertia; its ‘foreign policy’ remains an elusive dream. But in relation to the USA – and specifically America’s continuing Iraqi disaster – Europeans suddenly find themselves brimming with confidence.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called on opposition leader Angela Merkel to say sorry for supporting US actions in Iraq to boost his campaign in the Euro-elections – a reprise of his winning anti-US election campaign in 2002.

At the Cannes film festival the special jury prize was pointedly given to Bush-critic Michael Moore for his Fahrenheit 9/11. Susan Sontag enlarges American self-loathing with her essay ‘The [Abu Ghraib] photos are us’, an observation gleefully retailed in Europe. Meanwhile pollsters NOP World found that US brands are losing standing and market share, alongside a fall in the estimation of American trustworthiness in key markets like France, Germany, Italy and Turkey.

A memorandum, leaked from the British Foreign Office, suggests that ‘the scandal and treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib has sapped the moral authority of the coalition, inside Iraq and internationally’. In fact, the moral authority of the coalition was already falling steeply – which itself no doubt added to the likelihood that news of abuse would find its way to a media hungry for atrocity stories.

On the defensive at the start of the war, Germany, France and Belgium were derided by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld as ‘old Europe’ – defeatists who ought to make way for the new Europeans of the East. On visits to Washington, Chancellor Schroeder was brushed off, while the French were openly vilified. Europe’s goal of a distinctive foreign policy was shown to be a dream. Europe’s much vaunted ’50 years of peace’ depended on US security guarantees, it was said.

But as things got worse for the coalition, Europe’s indecision looked more like wise statesmanship. The inner collapse of the US strategy is making life easier for its European critics. Spanish socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s withdrawal from the coalition forces emboldens ‘old Europe’ in its withdrawal from the US war. Though in truth there is still no coherent European policy, the failure of the American policy makes Europe’s withdrawal from the war look statesmanlike. At little cost the European powers can sit back and watch things go wrong, waiting to be asked to underwrite some new compromise administration.

But the policy of withdrawing from the conflict has not been paralleled by any turn towards radicalism in Europe. Zapatero’s government – like France’s rising star Nicolas Sarkozy – happily demonstrates its intolerance towards indigenous Muslims, and an off-hand attitude to civil liberties. Germany, along with most of its European allies, has welcomed the accession of East European consumers to West European markets, but set restrictions on East European workers travelling to its territory. By deflecting criticism towards the USA, Europe’s own inward-looking elite is getting a free ride.

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Topics Politics


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