We Have To Talk

By Bronwen Maddox

Sunday, November 7, 2004


It is hard to overstate the sense of shock across much of Europe at the popular mandate that Americans have given George W. Bush, even if the result itself was no great surprise. One Norwegian designer working in London's Notting Hill shared with me her immediate sense of alarm, "It's going to be like World War III, isn't it? Everyone says so."

As the president's victory was confirmed, those on the left-of-center in Europe, who have supplied the loudest opposition to the Iraq war, competed to pronounce on the disaster. Hubert Vedrine, France's former Socialist foreign minister, said the result showed that "there is a major and lasting lack of understanding between the American people and the rest of the world."

Britain's New Statesman magazine, with close links to Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party, rushed out a cover saying simply "Oh No!" The front page of the left-wing Daily Mirror asked: "How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?"

For the 25 leaders of the European Union countries, those furious reflexes are not an option. The election result shows that Bush was not an accidental president. The Iraq war was not just a whim of his cronies; a majority of Americans, in effect, has now endorsed it. Waiting to see if Bush would simply go away, as many European leaders had hoped, has not worked. They will have to deal with him. When they met in Brussels on Thursday for a long-planned dinner, they scrapped the usual wrangles over farm subsidies and immigration rules to talk about how to do so.

With difficulty, is the answer, although Bush's reelection presents very different problems for those leaders who supported him and those who fervently did not.

It is a frequent misperception among many in the United States, I have found, that the whole of Europe (apart from Blair) hates Bush. In fact, the Iraq war split Europe deeply. True, polls have shown that most people in most European countries opposed the war. But 12 of the 25 governments backed Bush and sent troops at some point, even if just a few dozen in some cases.

Six of those countries, headed by Poland, were from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe that joined the European Union in May. They have shown an instinctive liking for the United States, springing from their antipathy to Moscow, that counterbalances the suspicion of "Old Europe."

These leaders who backed Bush -- and, of course, Blair above all -- now find themselves vulnerable due to a surge of anti-American feeling that has become a real political force, as recent polls show. It is noticeable even in Britain, where it has often been an audible undercurrent, more on the left than the right, but is now the staple of conversation. Planning to take my own Anglo-American family to the United States last summer, I heard genuine bafflement from friends and colleagues that -- for pleasure, not work -- I was proposing to head west from Britain, not east. In the Labor Party, the war has stirred up a barely dormant hostility to the United States. Ever since Vietnam, it has been easy to raise a cheer at the party's annual conference with a dig at the Americans.

In an interview on Thursday morning, the prime minister told a small group of us from the Times that he thought some of the anti-Bush coverage in the British media was "quite unbelievable," and that he thought it was easy to exaggerate the influence of "religious fundamentalism" on the election result. The U.S. view of the threat it faced after 9/11 "is worthy of serious debate," he said, "rather than condemning people who hold it as liars, warmongers or idiots."

Blair has managed to contain the opposition within his own party, but is forced constantly to defend his position, unable to switch the focus to domestic policy. His decision last month to send the Black Watch, the revered Scottish army regiment, into a dangerous zone of Iraq to relieve U.S. troops triggered a new, fierce row in parliament. Blair was accused of risking British lives to help Bush's campaign. The deaths of three Black Watch soldiers last Thursday, the first of the regiment killed in combat in Iraq, was front-page news across Britain.

European leaders who supported Bush cannot dismiss the anti-American pressures. They have in front of them the sobering example of Spain, where voters threw out Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar after the Madrid train bombings. Spaniards appeared to feel that he had made them a target without justification by sending troops to Iraq. The new Spanish prime minister promptly pulled them out. Public pressure and dismay about the course of the war prompted Hungary and the Netherlands to say last week that their troops will leave Iraq in the spring. The Czech Republic has already said the same.

For France and Germany, the leaders of Europe's antiwar bloc, Bush's victory presents different problems. They have everything to gain now by sounding pragmatic, and that, indeed, has been the predominant tone. One French official called Bush "the devil we know well," and said, "We did not think that things would have changed much with Kerry." The center-left Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper captured the German resignation with the headline "Mit Bush leben lernen" (Learning to Live With Bush).

But the pragmatism barely conceals the coolness underneath. There are signs, in fact, that the French tactic in Bush's second term may be one of careful ambivalence. On one hand, his reelection suits President Jacques Chirac, in that it allows Chirac to continue presenting himself as an alternative moral beacon. The flamboyance with which he pursued that role in the runup to the war has made him well-known within the United States -- rare for a European politician. On the other hand, playing that role has done France no favors in Europe. Chirac misjudged the extent to which the new, pro-American members of the European Union would contradict him. On many fronts France, one of the Union's founders, now finds itself subtly undermined.

The attitudes of European countries will be flushed out into the open within weeks. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has summoned an international conference for Nov. 22 to talk about rebuilding Iraq. It is unlikely, to put it mildly, that France and Germany will take a significant part.

The next showdown with Iran is a few days afterwards, when the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency will meet in Vienna to decide if Iran has done enough to allay fears about its nuclear research. The United States, which wants Iran referred to the United Nations Security Council at that meeting, has argued that the attempt by Britain, France and Germany to strike a deal is likely to fail.

Finally, there is the Middle East, one of Blair's central passions in foreign policy. He told his party's annual conference in September that once the U.S. elections were over, he would tell Washington it was time for another attempt to advance the peace process. But the European keenness for talking about final status solutions is a long way from the cool reserve of the U.S. position.

These points of difference were there already. The election does nothing to make matters any worse. Indeed, if there is a new tone of conciliation, it comes from the recognition that Bush is not a temporary aberration. That may even create a new willingness to work together, but it will in itself not be enough to wipe out the anti-Bush feeling that is now so strong across much of Europe.