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LONDON — One early and significant casualty of the war with Iraq is the unity of Europe. The European continent is split clean down the middle. On one side sit France, Germany and Belgium. On the other side sit almost all the other nations of Europe, east and west.

The division is not just about Iraq; it goes much deeper. At the root is the issue of Europe’s identity and how this is defined in relation to the United States. France and Germany see the need for a united Europe as a counterweight to American hegemony. They want Atlantic balance rather than Atlantic partnership.

The rest of Europe, and in population terms the larger half, see European unity as a reinforcement of the Atlantic alliance, and the alliance itself, or partnership, as the most important component in both European and global security. There may be occasional differences, but this is their underlying belief. The parallel with Japan-U.S. relations is almost exact. Standing on the edge, and probably rather enjoying the scene, is Russia, which is cautiously anti-American on the Iraq issue but in the longer run undoubtedly wants to keep in with the Americans as well.

Some commentators in the U.S., such as Robert Kagan, claim that there is an even bigger split developing — between the whole of Europe and the U.S. They depict the Americans as tough believers in force as the means of spreading democracy and Western values, and the Europeans as weak compromisers, hidebound by the traditional limitations of international law. America and Europe, they argue, are therefore bound to drift apart.

But this is plainly wrong. More than half of Europe remains strongly pro-American and totally committed to the Atlantic link. In Britain’s case — and Britain is unquestionably part of Europe — the links are probably closer today than they have ever been since 1945. As for the Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia, all about to become EU members, they are horrified at the thought of joining a bloc tainted with anti-American hostility.

The Kagan view typifies the shallowness of American understanding, particularly among academics, about Europe. They persist in seeing it as a single lump. But Europe is not a lump, it is a fascinating amalgam of deeply diverse cultures.

So how permanent is the damage to Europe being done by the present internal division? The situation has been greatly worsened by the tirade of French President Jacques Chirac against the smaller European nations, which were told they should keep their mouths shut on current issues. This has caused outrage among the smaller nations and redoubled their determination to stick by America and defy French “hegemony.”

But the quarrel does not mean a permanent split — the impulse toward European unity in the longer run is too strong for that. What it does mean is that the Franco-German domination of the European agenda, which has prevailed for the past three or four decades, is now at an end. When the arguing dies down, Europe will come together again but in a rebalanced way and on different terms.

Obviously there can be no united Europe without the two central great nations, France and Germany. But the Franco-German duo have just gone too far in trying to lay down the law on how Europe should develop. The Iraqi issue is just the final straw. Now voices of other countries must be heeded.

The British should now turn themselves into bridge-builders with their two big neighbors as never before. The trick will be to rebuild European unity in a way that strikes a balance between the interests and obvious weight and power of the big three — France, Germany and Britain — and the interests of all the other EU nations.

Germany and Britain will need to get much closer, and German confidence rebuilt from its present low ebb.

France will have to be gentler with the smaller countries of Central Europe, and accept that it cannot create modern Europe in its own image. The more obsessive centralizers and power-seekers in Brussels will have to tone down their ambitions for a European superpower and cede certain powers back to the nation-state members of the union.

What will, or should, emerge is a gentler, more democratic European Union, less concerned with strutting on the world stage and more concerned with the humdrum business of enlarging trade and prosperity in a context of freedom throughout all Europe. The European contribution to global security must be strong — stronger than at present — but always in close harmony with, rather in opposition to, the U.S.

In the early 19th century a famous British prime minister, William Pitt, once said, as he looked upon the latest stunning victory by Napoleon: “Roll up the map of Europe; it will not be needed these 10 years.”

Today the cry should be: “Unroll the map of Europe; despite the present crisis it now offers new opportunities for stability, democracy and diversity — and for the next 10 years at least.”

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