INSULTS continue to fly across the northern Atlantic as the lingering question of whether or not to attack Iraq still divides the West.
Last week, French president Jacques Chirac turned his attention to the eastern candidate countries and succeeded in raising the political temperature in Europe a degree or two, Celsius. His remark that eastern European candidates for European Union membership had missed "a good opportunity to keep quiet" in offering support to America's stance on Iraq infuriated the candidates, with the Poles out in front.
Slovak Foreign Ministry Eduard Kukan reacted by saying that France is an important country, but only one out of the 15 current member states. Prime Minister Dzurinda took a more positive approach, describing the United States as a friend of Europe, and adding that when Europe quarrels the dictator laughs.
Reaction in the Czech Republic was stronger, with a senior Czech official saying that EU candidate countries have been put under intolerable pressure from Brussels and Berlin.
Certainly, the comfortable assumption that joining NATO and the EU amounted to the same thing has been proven to be false. But President Chirac's remarks should be seen in the context of extraordinary US attempts to pressure new NATO members and invitees, including Slovakia, to go along with the policy of attacking Iraq or face unspecified difficulties. President Bush has Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ready to launch intercontinental insults and veiled threats at a moment's notice. Is it really very strange that old Europe has its own bully-boy?
If the stand-off continues between the US on one hand and the Franco-German axis on the other, difficult choices might have to be made in eastern European capitals. Political leaders might like to ask themselves the question: "Which is more important to us, NATO led by the US or a European Union led by Germany and France?"
That question may be made easier to answer by the growing awareness that NATO is no longer an alliance entirely devoted to defence. Indeed, a good case can be made for the argument that NATO is an institution past its sell-by date. No such case can be made for the demise of the European Union or of the Franco-German axis that constitutes the core of Europe.
Chirac's comments may have been too hot-blooded, but they may yet play a positive role in helping to focus minds.
24. Feb 2003 at 0:00