THE Baltic freeze that swept Europe this week seems to add a chill to the dark foreboding of things to come.
As the US and Britain prepare for war against Iraq, the rest of Europe watches with much uneasiness, not least in Germany and France, somewhat caught in a dilemma over what to do when the invasion begins to roll.
President Jacques Chirac, observed the centre-right Le Figaro, was opposed to any unilateral action over Iraq, but at the same time had asked French armed forces to be ready for any eventuality.
This “twin-track” approach, described as “skilful” by the left-wing Liberation, would mean that France would also join in should the UN sanction war to punish Iraq for non-compliance over its weapons of mass destruction.
Chirac, said Liberation, would then find himself “rowing against the current of anti-war feeling which he himself encouraged.” The latest poll showed that about 75% of French people opposed US unilateral action.
This dilemma, according to the German press, is particularly acute for Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, whose seat on the UN Security Council for the next two years will be an uncomfortable one.
“If, as is to be expected, the allies were to vote with America (for military action), then Berlin would not be able to vote against without completely isolating itself,” said Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung, the leading German daily.
Schroeder has backtracked from his strong opposition to war against Iraq by saying now that Germany could accept military action without participation.
His u-turn has been criticised in Germany, not least for breaking an important electoral pledge which, according to commentators, had tipped the scales in his favour in the touch-and-go general election in September.
Like Chirac, Schroeder would have to face the anti-war backlash, which would be much stronger in Germany at a time when the country is facing a lot of angst over its economic woes.
“A war without new evidence of Iraqi nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and without a second UN resolution would mean the end of any European foreign policy before it has even got off the ground,” said Frankfurter Rundschau.
“The old continent presents the absurd picture of the diplomatic isolation of the man who probably best represents pan-European scepticism,” it added, accusing France and Britain of pursuing national rather than European interests on the issue.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair made no apologies for his strong pro-US stance, telling a gathering of his ambassadors that the UK’s place was next to America as its closest ally, which he described as a “force for good.”
Much has been made of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Americans, and often cited as a prime example of political leverage was Blair’s role in persuading Bush not to take a unilateral approach but to go through the UN.
But a number of commentators have noted that domestic political considerations – to defuse strong opposition to blatant unilateralism – had forced Bush to take the UN route though Blair had played his part.
Ironically, it was US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as Ronald Reagan’s special Middle East envoy who sanctioned, if not closed an eye to, Saddam Hussein’s development of chemical weapons during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s.
According to declassified papers reported in the Washington Post recently, the US allowed the export of biological agents, including anthrax, for the development of chemical weapons sold through a CIA front organisation in Chile.
No doubt, beating around the bush over North Korea, which has declared its nuclear intentions, kicked out the UN monitors and snubbed world opinion, has opened the White House to accusations of double standards.
Whether Blair’s plea to the US “to listen” to the world on such issues as global warming, the war on poverty and to be more even-handed in resolving the Middle East conflict, would have its effect or fall on deaf ears is left to be seen.
His speech to his envoys, according to the political editor of Financial Times, appeared to be part of a concerted government effort to counter public impressions that London was Washington’s “poodle.”
Blair is not having things all his way. He is losing popular support, according to a Times survey, which shows Labour’s poor ratings may be due to growing concern over war with Iraq, in line with other opinion polls.
There are also signs of Cabinet divisions, with the FT reporting the Foreign Secretary calling for caution on military action, and the Defence Secretary rebutting this stand.
“The mood has hardened over Christmas,” The Guardian quoted an influential Labour moderate as saying.
“Labour MPs don’t trust George Bush and wonder why Tony (Blair) is so close to him.
“And the weapons inspectors haven’t found anything. With a new UN resolution it (war) is manageable, but if Tony wants to do anything without UN support there will be serious mega-trouble.”
Fears over the likelihood of Blair taking Britain into war have also been voiced by its foreign missions, according to The Guardian, adding that Bush badly needs Britain on its side in a war, more for political rather than military reasons.
Blair’s problem, according to The Times in an editorial, is to win over public opinion, not an easy task when the suspicion is that the US “is motivated not by biological or chemical weapons but oil and vengeance.”
o Tan Kah Peng is Editor, European Union, based in London (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
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