Transatlantic meltdown over Iraq: is France villain or hero?

Kirsty Hughes
18 February 2003

As France continues to push for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, most of the US media and large sections of the British media are engaged in a ferocious assault on the French position, accusing France of hubris and posturing, of still imagining itself a great world power, of being isolated, irrelevant and (following Donald Rumsfeld) of being ‘old Europe’.

Both Rumsfeld and much of the media seem to think that ridicule and insults are preferable to persuasive argument and intelligent diplomacy. Any disagreement with the US view is to be seen as cause for rupture with long-standing allies.

But to argue that France is isolated is simply wrong. And to suggest that France and Germany can be sidelined as irrelevant or unimportant to new European politics is either seriously to misunderstand the European Union or, perhaps in the case of Rumsfeld, to deliberately misunderstand European politics in the hope of weakening both the EU, and the Franco-German couple within it.

What is stranger and more difficult to understand is why so many European countries – the Wall Street Journal 8 and the Vilnius 10 – are also apparently so keen to join in this undermining process.

As France strengthens its arguments within the United Nations (UN) Security Council, in particular by publishing a ‘non-paper’ laying out the case for intensified inspections, it is receiving support from two of the other permanent members, Russia and China, and from non-permanent members. The Blix report on 14 February further strengthened the ‘dove-ish’ position and upset US and UK plans to move immediately to a second UN resolution.

Nor is France isolated in Europe, as the recent EU summit shows. Only five of the current 15 EU members signed the WSJ letter. Of the 25 countries that will make up the enlarged EU in 2004, 13 were included in the WSJ 8 and the Vilnius 10 (accounting for around half of the enlarged EU’s population).

So the EU is certainly split down the middle, but France is not isolated. And in terms of public opinion across the 25, it is clear that France is speaking for Europe. Even in the UK, despite Tony Blair’s consistent support for the US, opinion polls remain not only against the war, but increasingly so.

The message from the polls was sharply reinforced by the huge demonstrations over the weekend of 15-16 February (demonstrations which, as Patrice de Beer argues, set European public opinion both strongly against the views of many of its governments and also against US policy).

A damaging division

Both the WSJ 8 and the Vilnius 10 statements emphasised the need for transatlantic unity. But there can be no such transatlantic unity by definition, if Europe is divided – a division which these 18 countries have both intensified and publicised.

Although fingers have pointed at Germany, and Schröder’s anti-war performance in the elections, as a key early cause of European division, in fact the UK took a high profile position many months earlier, identifying itself closely with the US, with little consultation or coordination with European allies.

Some of the WSJ 8 claim to have been stung into action by Franco–German common statements on Iraq at Versailles on 22 January and at the UN two days earlier. But the Franco–German statements did not show the contempt for EU solidarity and consultation that distinguishes the WSJ 8.

France and Germany emphasised the importance of the UN Security Council as the route to deal with Iraq, and stressed that war is evidence of political and diplomatic failure. Their statement was also made in advance of agreement of the EU common position on Iraq on Monday 27 January, one in line with the latter’s outcome, and the result also of consultation with the current EU presidency (led by the Greeks).

Yet the five EU signatories of the WSJ letter sat with their fellow foreign ministers on the Monday to agree a common position, which they knew they were going to divert from and undermine on the Wednesday, when the letter was printed. They did not consult the Greek presidency (only too aware perhaps of the likely response) or Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy supremo. It is worth noting that The Netherlands, while close to UK and Spanish positions on Iraq, refused an invitation to sign the letter clearly seeing it as an anti-European move.

The WSJ letter was at best a piqued and childish response to an unexpected renewal of the Franco–German relationship – both in ‘getting back’ at France and Germany and in the aim of impressing and mollifying Rumsfeld. At the worst, it has the potential to seriously damage relations within Europe at the point of enlargement and to aggravate rather than help the crisis in transatlantic relations.

A common European position on Iraq: six elements

In the face of strong negative reactions within Europe – including within the countries of some of the signatories of the letter – it was even more surprising that the Vilnius 10 then chose to aggravate the situation further, with a statement many times removed from the EU common line. Half of the Vilnius 10 will join the EU in 2004 and many of the east–central European accession states say they do not want to have to choose between the US and the EU.

But in this case actions seem to speak louder than words – at the least, the accession countries have shown a disregard over how to manage European differences, and certainly disdain for the EU’s attempts at a nascent common foreign and security policy.

Some suggest that a wider lesson is that the enlarged EU will be one of many changing and transient internal alliances. But a more worrying issue is that so many of the current and future members seem so little concerned with the political role and image of the EU. If the enlarged EU develops into little more than a free trade area, without political cohesion, then ‘Old Europe‘ may well react by forming itself into a highly integrated inner core, perhaps not the outcome Rumsfeld was looking for.

Some suggest that the splits simply expose the ‘sham’, which is the EU’s attempts at a common foreign policy, for what it is. Certainly, it is now many months too late to forge a genuine and substantive common position. But if political will and intelligence had been shown earlier in 2002, a common position was not inconceivable and could have had an influence.

What would such a position have looked like? There would have been six core components:

  • only the multilateral UN route was acceptable to deal with Iraq (a position that Tony Blair has now been almost forced into accepting, with his proviso of ‘unreasonable’ vetoes); ·
  • lengthy and heavy inspections; ·
  • a rethinking of sanctions, which currently hit only the Iraqi people and not Saddam; ·
  • an insistence on a fresh initiative on the Israel–Palestine conflict; ·
  • an emphasis that the fight against terrorism was the top priority; ·
  • setting out when, if ever, pre-emptive action is acceptable (probably taking existing closely delimited UN principles on this).

An agreement of this kind would have required some movement and restraint from both Britain and Germany, but could have received solid EU backing and allowed constructive dialogue with the US, if it was willing to engage in such dialogue.

It would certainly have required the UK not to align itself quite as closely with the US as it has, but in the process Blair would have had much more chance to act as a genuine bridge between Europe and America – supposedly one of the aims of British foreign policy. The EU might also have started to look a little more like the stable pole and model in the world that it declared as its aspiration when it launched its constitutional convention one year ago.

But the chance has gone. It is true that the conclusions of the EU’s leaders at their summit on 17 February show a real attempt to end the damaging public divisions of the last few weeks and that they are stronger than the common position of 27 January. But this is damage limitation and not a new united EU position on Iraq.

It is, in fact, a position that is closest to that of France and Jacques Chirac – not ruling out the use of force, but insisting force is ‘only a last resort’, while emphasising that the UN inspectors ‘must be given the time and resources the UN Security Council believe they need’. The summit conclusions go on to say the ‘inspections cannot continue indefinitely in the absence of the full cooperation of Iraq’, which points back to the importance of the UN and Hans Blix’s continuing reports to it.

France in the lead

Jacques Chirac clearly played a key role in obtaining the balance of the EU’s statement and bringing Germany on board with a statement that mentions force. This is an important shift in the German position and may weaken the ability of Joschka Fischer to continue making the strong case he has against pre-emptive action.

But both France and Germany were in relatively strong positions at the summit since they not only had their own public opinion behind them but that of the other member states too, with the political impact of the weekend’s demonstrations adding an important and unusual dynamic. While the UK put positive emphasis on the mention of force and the refusal to allow indefinite inspections, big differences remain, not least between France and the UK.

Moreover, it is clear that the UK, like the US, does not in fact want to give the inspectors any more time but knows it cannot win a second resolution right now. The most important moment of the summit perhaps was Chirac’s statement to journalists on the way in, that if a second resolution was tabled ‘today’, then France would veto it.

The focus of world attention now has moved to the UN level, where these differences will be played out in the coming weeks. There, world opinion remains unconvinced that Saddam poses a threat that requires pre-emptive action and that, among all the many totalitarian countries in the world, regime change should be forced by military action in Iraq (whose totalitarianism it should not be forgotten was long accepted by the US).

Many rightly argue that there are several other countries more likely to provide terrorists with a route to weapons of mass destruction, while the impact of a conflict in Iraq on stability in the Middle East may be seriously negative, neither conducive to a peace settlement in Palestine nor to success in the wider fight against international terror.

France and Germany are not the only countries making these arguments, but France in particular is certainly taking the lead, using its position at the UN – and in NATO – to counter the drive to war. Will France take its argument all the way, in opposing the US and UK urge for military action? This is the big unanswered question – Chirac has left himself room and arguments to alter his position.

In the coming days and weeks, much hangs on the next reports of the weapons inspectors. But unless their reports uncompromisingly condemn lack of Iraqi cooperation, there is no guarantee that the US and the UK will succeed in getting a second UN resolution, especially if they treat 28 February as the final deadline.

One possibility on a second resolution is abstention by China, France and Russia; this would allow the UK some UN cover but would hardly be a resounding statement of support from the international community. While Tony Blair stated on British television that he would only go to war without a second resolution in the face of an ‘unreasonable’ veto (an unknown legal concept), foreign secretary Jack Straw was already indicating after the EU summit that resolution 1441 was adequate as it stands without a second resolution.

If, in the highest stakes endgame, France does use its veto, and the US still goes to war, then in the crisis that will ensue over the role and position of the UN, it should be clear that it is the US – who for months has insisted it will not be bound in any event by the UN – who has undermined its credibility and chosen the unilateral route.

Dangerous though such a moment will be, it is preferable to a situation where countries vote for a second resolution only to try to keep the US within UN bounds, and not because they genuinely accept the case for war. That would be the most damaging for the UN’s credibility and in the long run for transatlantic relations. All attention is on the UN. And while the EU is sidelined, it is France as much as the US that is pivotal: the centre of attention in the debates and decisions ahead.

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