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East Europe engaged to EU, flirts with US

May 15, 2003

BUDAPEST: Just as the EU embarks on its bold expansion into ex-communist eastern Europe, the war in Iraq has opened up a rift between the east and west of the continent which has its roots in two very different post-war histories.

A recent gathering of east European thinkers in Hungary’s capital said euro-scepticism may be taking hold among the European Union’s new recruits, partly because of a sense that western Europe does not understand the east as well as it thinks it does.

A harmonious lead-up to enlargement was spoilt when the new east European members openly defied France and Germany by backing the US-led war on Iraq, prompting a furious French President Jacques Chirac to denounce them as “not very well behaved and reckless”.

Aleksander Smolar, president of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, told a symposium organized by the European Cultural Foundation that Chirac failed to appreciate a key psychological factor behind the region’s support for the United States.

“The US is more credible for us as a guarantor of security than western Europe, which is still looking for an idea of security and cannot assure its reality,” he said.

“(Our leaders) chose imperial power over local hegemony and Chirac’s words were proof they had chosen well.”

Most new EU members, due to join next May, are asking voters to back entry in referendums this year. Malta, Slovenia, Hungary and Lithuania have so far said ‘Yes’. Turnout in the ex-Soviet state of Lithuania last weekend was 64 per cent, but the Hungarian vote attracted only 46 per cent.

This has triggered concern that votes in nearby Slovakia and Poland may fail to draw the 50 per cent needed to make their referendums valid.

LONG WAIT: As well as annoyance at what they see as French and German condescension, Hungarian economist Laszlo Csaba said voters may have switched off because it has taken so long for the EU and candidate states to agree membership terms. Hungary first applied to join in 1991.

Andras Bozoki, political analyst at the Central European University, told the symposium that since the EU had set all the conditions for membership and there was nowhere else for these states to go, their populations felt disengaged.

“Our societies are well adapted to membership without belonging — the Warsaw Pact, Comecon and, on an individual level, the Communist Party, where people joined because they needed to — not because they were communist,” he said.

Many of Europe’s pacifist-minded intellectuals found it hard to support their leaders’ pro-war stance.

Hungary’s most famous political writer Gyorgy Konrad, a former dissident and close friend of former Czech president Vaclav Havel, surprised many by coming out in support of the US, despite having opposed the 1999 NATO war in Kosovo.

“The United States has been since the beginning of the Second World War a friend of European never made any concession on this,” he told the symposium.

“If France and West Germany were spared the ‘gifts’ of the Soviet Union, it was because the US showed (Moscow) the limits of its growing expansion.”

INFERIORITY COMPLEX: For Bozoki, siding with the US over Iraq was also a way of overcoming eastern Europe’s inferiority complex.

“Many of my students prefer to travel to the US because they always feel European, while in Western Europe they feel East European. The paradox is that it is only by being on the US side that they get to feel fully European.”

Smolar believes that, for all Chirac’s bluster, Poland’s support for the US war effort raised Warsaw’s profile in European capitals.

“Our president says openly that because of our close relationship with the US we are much more seriously treated in Paris and Berlin now,” he said.

But Konrad saw the sparring between anti- and pro-Americans as a dangerous diversion from the task he, Havel and other members of the Charter 77 movement set themselves in the dark days of Soviet domination.—Reuters