THE historical setting in the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens was not lost on the 25 European leaders, who laid to rest on Wednesday the ghost of the cold war.
By signing up to join the European Union, 10 countries, eight of them former communist states, erased the political divisions that once split the continent into two opposing camps.
Appropriately, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder likened the signing of the 5,000-page accession treaty to the fall of the Berlin Wall, while Hungary’s Nepszabadsag described it as “a dream come true.”
The venue was also symbolic: the Stoa of Attalos, a long colonnaded building that dates back to 150BC, was rebuilt with American money, a reminder, according to Financial Times, of the enduring influence of the US in Europe.
Like it or not, the Europeans could not shake off the long shadow cast by the US-led invasion of Iraq which deeply divided them nor ignore the new political realities of an increasingly unilateralist superpower.
Perhaps the speeches of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac reveal the extent of the new political divide in Europe.
Blair, according to The Guardian, referred pointedly to freedom from dictatorship and repression for former communist countries – his subtext unmistakably about Saddam Hussein, not the Iron Curtain.
He then left the summit before the traditional EU photo-call in which the leaders clutched olive branches, his aides telling The Times that he was not yet ready to be photographed, proffering olive branches to erstwhile allies.
Chirac reminded the new members about the European family – a clear reference to the pro-US stance of the ex-communist states – and the need to help forge a multi-polar world.
Try as they might, healing the war wounds will take time and the key post-war issues, such as the US-led reconstruction plans, the UN role and control of Iraqi oil reserves, will severely test trans-Atlantic ties.
British commentators see Chirac’s vision of the EU as a counterweight to US power, especially an increasingly unilateral Bush White House, with some even viewing his stance as in opposition to the Americans.
They point to the mini-summit on April 29 between France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg to discuss closer military cooperation, which have been interpreted by some as another step towards “isolating” the pro-US British.
The summit, according to the commentators, is at variance with the 1998 initiative by Chirac and Blair to have a European security and defence policy, and will be seen by the Pentagon as anti-American.
Two analysts, the director of the London-based Centre for European Reform and the head of the EU programme at the German Council on Foreign Relations, see a more far-reaching impact on the frayed trans-Atlantic ties.
While the summit will be an opportunity for Chirac to fulfil the dreams of Charles de Gaulle for an independent European defence, for Germany it will be a major, if not decisive, break from a historical pattern.
Germany, they noted, had always been committed to Nato and had chosen to stand close to the US, rather than France, in security matters but Schroeder had broken this historical pattern to stand alongside France.
Schroeder was not only responding to German pacifism but also trying to enhance the country’s European and global role, and perhaps sharing Chirac’s concern over the go-it-alone tendencies of the Bush White House.
Blair, according to Baroness Williams, a Lib-Dem leader, has accepted political realities: the US is the world’s only superpower and the best way to influence the White House to move in a multilateral direction is to prove his loyalty.
But it has been a tough balancing act for Blair as he tries to restore the badly bruised ties with the EU, and the controversial decision by Bush to go it alone to find Saddam’s hidden weapons is a case in point.
Blair and the UN had called for independent inspectors to conduct the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, seen as a political imperative for the US and Britain because they went to war on this issue.
The immediate test would be the reconstruction of Iraq, now under US military control, said Williams, describing Pentagon moves to select who will represent the defeated country as incompatible with the role of the UN.
The next test would be the road map for peace in the Middle East, she said, noting that a senior Israeli spokesman had caustically criticised Blair for his “extreme positions” on the issue.
While Europe may not have the hard military strength, its “soft power” – money, aid, investment, trade, expertise and its acceptance of the rule of law – was described by Williams as formidable.
“To many in the modern world, soft power offers a much more attractive alternative than the Hobbesian world of hard power, where might makes right,” she said, adding that this was “the magnet” that attracted the 10 new EU members.
The heading in The Times on the outcome of the Athens summit adequately summed up the present trans-Atlantic mood: “Smiles fail to hide Europe’s deep divisions.”
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