A More Perfect Union?

The Iraq war has quietly but fundamentally changed the course of the European Union. If in recent years Britain, France, and Germany -- the EU's three most important states -- had created a delicate and unprecedented harmony over Europe's future, Britain's decision to join the war destroyed it. This dissension is playing out all over Europe: French senatorial elections this month will articulate visceral anti-Americanism that calls for combating U.S. power with EU centralization, and this America-bashing has further distanced Britain from its neighbors.

Due to its importance, history, and position as Europe's financial capital, Britain is vital to the European Union's future. Yet Britain has always been ambivalent about European unity because of its centuries-long attachment to the idea of “splendid isolation.” In 1955, an early British EU negotiator reportedly offered the classic British view of EU institutions: “Gentlemen, you are trying to negotiate something you will never be able to negotiate. But if negotiated, it will not be ratified. And if ratified, it will not work.” In addition to this skepticism over Europe, Britain has also repeatedly chosen its “special relationship” with the United States over a more intimate relationship with the European Union.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was the first British leader to fully commit to Europe. In 1997, he rejected the traditional disdain, declaring Britain's future to be in leading a united Europe. Defying the conventional wisdom of a majority of his countrymen and political colleagues, Blair favors adoption of the new European currency and has quietly advanced EU integration at home, which surprised Britons and delighted his EU counterparts.

The Iraq War changed everything. By supporting George W. Bush and sending troops, Blair implicitly reneged on his commitment to EU unity, choosing the traditional Washington alliance over the wishes of his new allies in Paris and Berlin. As German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer explained, “We all know that this is about the question of Iraq, but it's also about the question of Europe.” This decision was strongly opposed at home; it severely damaged Blair's domestic position and undermined his credibility with the British people. As a result, his ability to pursue further EU integration has been sharply and perhaps irrevocably curtailed. It is ironic that Blair, Britain's most “European” prime minister, has had his electoral and political future irreparably damaged attempting to maintain Britain's special relationship across the Atlantic over a war in the Middle East.

Given Blair's striking Europeanist commitment, his support of the United States and not the European Union regarding Iraq represents a serious setback for EU development in general. As none of Blair's potential successors in either major British party is as committed to EU integration as he is, his political debilitation may be a real obstacle to further EU progress. This renewed intra–EU hostility has already had significant European political ramifications. French President Jacques Chirac aggressively opposed the Iraq War and called eastern European states “childish” and “irresponsible” for supporting it. A February 2003 poll showed that more than three-quarters of the French people considered his actions “courageous,” and Chirac was short-listed for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder won a narrow re-election victory in 2002 on the Iraq issue, explicitly refusing to take part in any U.S. military “adventures,” and at a June 2004 EU summit, he shouted to Blair that their relationship was “finished.”

These hostilities have had explicit consequences for recent EU negotiations. First, in talks about a new EU constitution, finalized in June 2004, British officials had initially appeared committed to the larger European project. After Iraq, however, these negotiators appeared far more skeptical, demanding opt-out clauses over asylum, migration, and judicial policies in an attempt to protect Britain from the treaty rather than to commit to it. These disagreements became public in June when Chirac and Schröder attacked Blair for putting Britain's national interests before European interests, with Chirac accusing Blair of thwarting the constitution's very goal of moving toward ever-closer integration and ending the veto as a device to block progress. Britain responded that decisions over Europe's future had to be made by all 25 EU members, not by “six or two [Germany and France] or one [France].”

The new constitution's main achievement had been to extend qualified majority voting (allocating EU voting power based on a nation's population size rather than simply one vote per country) to several areas of European policy, rather than requiring unanimity. Britain, however, prevented the extension of this broader voting arrangement to key spheres including taxation, defense, and foreign policy, thus maintaining a veto in these areas for every EU state and preventing the constitution from becoming more wide-ranging. For example, the constitution allows for a European public prosecutor, but as a result of (mainly) British objections, he or she is limited to investigating fraud regarding EU funds, and cannot investigate other serious cross-border criminal cases.

The EU constitution, however, was not the only point of contention. In June 2004, Britain squared off with France and Germany again over the selection of the next president of the European Commission -- the EU's executive branch. Britain's candidate called for a European Union of more circumscribed powers, while France and Germany's candidate had a far more centralized and expansive view. Both sides vetoed the other's choice. A hostile stalemate prevailed, and several more candidates were rejected until Portugal's Jose Barroso was reluctantly accepted as the least offensive candidate to both sides, nicknamed “Mr. Nobody” by British tabloids.

The Iraq War also polarized Turkey's application for EU membership. Prior to the war, Turkey's application hinged on several issues, including sufficient progress on human rights and the judiciary, as well as several EU members' reluctance to integrate a Muslim state into the union. Already delicate, the membership negotiation was made more controversial when the government of Turkey, a NATO member and a traditional U.S. ally, initially offered to let Bush use Turkish bases in case of war with Iraq, incensing the anti-war EU states (the Turkish parliament vetoed the offer). Thereafter, in June 2004, Bush publicly called upon the European Union to accept Turkey's application. This enraged Chirac, who publicly told Bush to mind his own business. Today, Britain and the United States support Turkey's application as a longtime ally, while France and Germany reportedly still have reservations.

This EU schism cannot be laid at Britain's doorstep alone, though. The United States played a key role in creating it, both by invading Iraq and, more generally, by its shift in attitude. The U.S. view of European unity has had a long and complicated history. Following World War II and with the Soviet Union looming, the United States saw the nascent European Union as a bulwark against instability, and it supported the Franco-German efforts to create new European institutions. In addition to the munificence of the Marshall Plan, in 1952, Secretary of State Dean Acheson expressed the strong U.S. support that “the political and economic unification of Europe warrants.”

However, with the end of the Cold War, the United States began to see the European Union more as a competitor than an ally, a process President Bush has accelerated. His increasing willingness to choose unilateral action over multilateral action found expression in withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. During a 2003 press conference, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech that divided the European Union into “old Europe” (France and Germany) and “new Europe” (Atlanticists) on the question of invading Iraq. Cherishing their independence, many EU states considered this an act of insensitive U.S. intervention in internal EU affairs that ignored the union's overall integrity.

This rupture may pose near-term problems for the EU's future. But it also represents an opportunity. The old powerhouses -- Britain, France, and Germany -- are now facing a structural challenge from a more responsive and democratic Europe. The days of tripartite domination are over. As a result of the new constitution, future EU decisions will require the agreement of more than half the EU member countries, not simply a few. The new constitution has markedly reduced both Britain's ability to unilaterally prevent integration and France and Germany's capacity to dictate the EU's direction. In fact, the bitter dissension over the Iraq War may have illustrated not simply the rifts between the major EU states but also the way forward for the EU as an evolving whole.

Sam Natapoff, a former Clinton-administration appointee, has worked at the European Parliament, the European Central Bank, and the German Bundesbank. Having completed his doctorate in political science, he is writing a book on the politics of exchange rate coordination.