Giant Demonstrations Transform Europe

By Sieff, Martin; Twair, Pat McDonnell et al. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Giant Demonstrations Transform Europe

Sieff, Martin, Twair, Pat McDonnell, Powell, Sara, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Atlantic Alliance was already in bad shape before the mass demonstrations throughout Western Europe Feb. 14. It is in terminal crisis now.

The problem for the venerable Transatlantic partnership that won the Cold War is not merely that nearly 4 million people took to the streets across Western Europe that Saturday to protest the expected U.S. war on Iraq. It is where the biggest protests took place.

The protests were relatively smaller, though still impressive, in France, Germany and other countries whose governments had already come out strongly in opposition to the Bush administration over Iraq. But they were truly colossal-and unprecedented-in Britain, Italy and Spain-the three countries whose governments had all defied Paris and Berlin to support U.S. policy.

That means the political impact of the demonstrations will be far greater on the very governments that the Bush administration was relying upon for support. And they look likely to derail even broader, long-term Bush strategies toward Europe.

For despite fierce French and German opposition to the looming war, backed by Russia, Bush strategists in the White House, National Security Council and Department of Defense had been congratulating themselves over the preceeding two weeks on what they thought were profound shifts in their favor in Europe.

First, France and Germany were taken by surprise by the decisive action of 10 European governments, including Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal and the new Central European members of the European Union in breaking with them and supporting America.

This split boosted hopes within the administration and conservative think tanks supportive of it that France and Germany would not be able to maintain their traditional domination of the EU, which only in December expanded from 15 nations to 25 at the Copenhagen summit. The more proAmerican new Central European members, it appeared, would make common cause with the pro-American governments of Spain and Italy to split the EU from within and neutralize its traditional Franco-German power center.

But now the huge protests in Barcelona and Rome-not to mention the unprecedented colossal one in London-is sending precisely the opposite message. It is telling the British, Italian and Spanish governments that their support for the war is massively unpopular with their own populations and that the policies of France and Germany are not just popular at home, they also have immense support in other Western European nations, too.

This news could not have come at a more opportune time for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He has been reeling in recent weeks over the heavy-handed way he overplayed his opposition to U.S. policies on Iraq while the consequences of Schroeder's failure to pull the ailing German economy out of its doldrums have dominated domestic political discussion. Schroeder has just been humiliated by a sweeping state election loss. And no one doubted that if last September's federal elections were held again now, he would go down to sweeping defeat at the hands of a resurgent Christian Democrat opposition led by Angela Merkel.

But the scale of the Feb. 14 demonstrations, not just in Berlin, where half a million people turned out in the biggest German popular demonstration since the collapse of communism, but throughout the EU, puts Iraq rather than the economy back on center stage. And it is likely to give the stumbling Schroeder a new lease on political life.

The effect of the demonstrations may be even more dire for the Bush administration in Italy and Spain. Both countries hold key strategic positions in the Mediterranean and along air supply routes to the likely Middle East battlefronts. And Bush strategists were counting on the free use of their air bases in the expected war.

That may still happen. But the governments of Prime Ministers Silvio Berlusconi in Rome and Jose Maria Aznar in Madrid will now have to be far more cautious about fully and uncritically cooperating with Washington. …

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