"New Europe's" Dilemma

Will “New Europe” side with the United States — or “Old Europe?”

February 16, 2003

Will "New Europe" side with the United States — or "Old Europe?"

A lack of political tact in Washington — as well as a persisting European incapacity to formulate its own common policy — is bringing each of the former communist countries to the brink of internal political crisis.


Faced with pressure on both sides, asking the countries of "New Europe" whether they stand by the Americans or support the Franco-German alliance is like asking a child, "Who do you like better, your Mom — or your Dad?"

"It is not very elegant to put such a question to an exhausted country which only recently got rid of its own totalitarian regime," writes Romanian philosopher Andrei Plesu in an editorial just published by the Slovak daily newspaper SME.

But what do the people living in Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia and Romania think about this situation?

About 63% of Poles, 67% of Czechs and 82% of Hungarians oppose the war against Iraq. Even if sanctioned by the UN, there would be only 28% support among Bulgarians and 20% among Estonians.

Romania is the only Eastern European country where the supporters of the U.S. war against Iraq outnumber the opponents 45% to 38%.

What these numbers make clear is this: The "New Europe" can still distinguish between a simplistic anti-Americanism — and disagreement with Mr. Bush's policies.

Yet, the political situation in Eastern Europe is becoming very similar to that in the Middle East: pro-American governments — and anti-American streets.

The first big test for the durability of the new alliance will be a referendum on future NATO membership to be held in Slovenia on March 23, 2003.

After a long and painful process of political maturation, Slovakia at last received the long awaited invitation to join NATO in November 2002. One month later the country got a similar acceptance message from the EU. "It was a Slovak year!" exclaimed the cover of the country's political magazine, Format.

Slovakia's prime minister, Mikulas Dzurinda, recently signed two letters supporting the U.S. cause against Iraq — one initiated by Spanish prime minister Carlos Maria Aznar, the other signed by the "Vilnius 10" group.

"Ironically, the Wall Street Journal 'forgot' to publish Dzurinda's signature under Aznar's highly publicized letter, but the French were furious with his action just the same," says one diplomatic source. "Paris called it a Slovak 'empty gesture'."

Many Slovaks now realize they are stuck in a no-win situation. In order to join the EU, they will need for their accession treaties to be ratified by the German and French parliaments. In the case of NATO, the situation is even more desperate: How can you make the U.S. Senate happy — and at the same time 'court' the German Bundestag and French Parliament?

As things stand under the Bush Administration, America cannot help but see European affairs through the glasses of Maggie Thatcher.

"Having for so long given up their sovereignty to one integrating political-economic union, and having so recently regained it, they are uneasily weighing the benefits of European integration against the costs of ever-increasing encroachment by Brussels on their self-determination," writes the Washington Times on the emerging "New Europe" and its supposed pro-American stance.

But here is one fact that ought to give the Americans — with their current hype about the new Europe — some pause: If Mr. Bush's war on Iraq had the same ratings as the support for EU membership has among the population in the "New Europe" at the moment, Washington wouldn't need to wait anymore — and could start the military action tomorrow.

Despite this very pro-EU stance in most accession countries, there is resentment in the "New Europe" towards Brussels's European bureaucracy.

But Eastern Europeans know from their own experience that Washington is not an easily-pleased master either, micromanaging the domestic affairs of its "New European" allies — and sticking its nose in every pot on the stove.

What about another sign of American misunderstanding of Eastern European affairs? "After spending decades behind the Iron Curtain, these former communist states say they are eager to confront tyranny, as embodied by Hussein, the Iraqi leader," writes recently Boston Globe.

In the past decade, Eastern Europeans quickly put the bad historical experience behind them. But now, with the economic hardships which accompanied the arrival of political freedom, more and more of them are dusting off their 'fond memories' of the past. They say they have 'more serious' problems than to care about some distant Iraqi dictator.

"It is a bitter irony that they so easily forgot about what was bad about communism —and remember only the state-subsidized health care, schools and public transportation. But Americans often like to see the situation how they wish it would be, not how it really is," says one Eastern European diplomat.

The overwhelming majority of the population of the "New Europe" sees NATO and the U.S. as a guarantee for their security. But at the same time they see the EU as the only viable chance for their economic prosperity.

The poorer the country is, the higher the support for EU membership. Brussels invested billions of euros — in the form of grants — in its future member states in the past years. Furthermore, EU countries account for most foreign investment and absorb most of Eastern Europe's exports.

American politicians like to hear "good stories" about the brave people from the "New Europe" who are anxious to fight Saddam's tyranny. And Eastern European diplomats quickly learned the language of Washington. But let's not fool ourselves — they lack the support of their own populations.

Psychologists discourage parents from dealing with their personal conflicts by trying to win the love of their children while offering them candy bars.

And yet, that unfortunately is precisely how both the EU and Washington are conveniently trying to frame the issues for the former Warsaw Pact nations. To semi-leering questions such as, "Who do you love more, your Mom or your Dad?" there is "Don't ask your kids silly questions!"

Mom and Dad may later make peace, but their relationship with their own kids will never be the same.