- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

LONDON — The European Union’s hopes of emerging as a great power to rival the United States were dented in 2003 as angry governments squabbled over Iraq and the increasingly evident aches and pains of their ambitious merger.

Iraq dominated European politics from the highest government levels to sidewalk cafe chatter. The European Union split, with France and Germany heading international opposition to war, while Britain, Spain, Italy and others backed the Bush administration’s ouster of Saddam Hussein from Iraq.

Millions took to the streets in many of America’s most closely allied nations to oppose the war in some of the biggest demonstrations in history.

“The crisis over Iraq has left deep scars,” said political analyst Maxime Lefebvre of the French Institute of International Relations.

Much public anger subsided after the fall of Saddam, with France and Germany trying to repair ties with Washington. Mindful of vital trade and security links, no nation wanted to alienate Washington for long, but there was no disguising the bitterness that lingered.

France sharpened its insistence that Europe must unite to counter American global dominance, and President Jacques Chirac rebuked Eastern European nations for backing the war, hinting it would hurt their future as European Union partners. But the Easterners, like Britain, preferred the traditional alliance with America.

Stung by their inability to stop the war, Paris and Berlin pushed for an EU military force that critics said was aimed at undermining NATO. But Britain, the staunchest U.S. ally, agreed to take part, arguing that it need not be a threat to trans-Atlantic ties if managed properly.

The move to unite Europe continued amid the usual mix of idealism, recrimination and fudging. The 15-nation bloc will absorb 10 new members in 2004, including some former Soviet-bloc nations.

Efforts this month to frame a European constitution foundered. Some existing and prospective members resisted what they saw as a move to a federal superstate that would eclipse national governments and rights.

“The enemies of free societies today are those who want to burden us again with layer upon layer of regulations,” said Czech President Vaclav Klaus as his country prepared to join the European Union.

With France and Germany pushing hard for new majority-voting rules to increase central control, Britain and others balked at surrendering control over key areas such as taxes, defense and foreign policy.

While rhetoric and emotions spilled out over Iraq and integration, Europe dithered on how to handle its limping economy and high unemployment. Germany and France, the two biggest economies in the union, stumbled close to recession.

The euro has risen to record highs against the dollar, but the EU’s common currency lost its gleam as France and Germany effectively wrecked an agreement on limiting government spending intended to govern the currency shared by 12 nations. Some smaller members grumbled about the big states doing as they liked, and Swedish voters opted to stay out of the euro zone.

“This was not a victory for Europe,” said Pedro Solbes, EU monetary-affairs commissioner, amid the recriminations over the euro.

Business leaders and critics complained that European business is weighed down by bureaucracy and high taxes. Alarmed by their falling birthrates and aging populations, Germany, France and others tried to reform tax and welfare programs, only to meet strong opposition from unions and other interests.

Warnings that in 30 years there would be just three workers for every two pensioners were rejected by workers determined to hang on to generous state pensions and the right to retire in their 50s.

A greater concern for many Europeans was illegal immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Far-right parties in Switzerland and elsewhere continued to pick up votes on the issue and some governments introduced tough policies, interning asylum seekers and cutting off state benefits.

And while many Europeans protested against the war in Iraq, there was growing tension with their Islamic minorities. France was torn by a bitter debate over a government decision in mid-December to seek legislation banning Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in public schools.

Some European countries worried about rising crime rates. The big shocker was the stabbing murder of Sweden’s foreign minister as she shopped in a Stockholm department store.

Europe was reminded of the old scourge of anti-Semitism with a series of attacks on Jewish cemeteries and temples. France took special steps to combat anti-Semitism and several German politicians and officials came under fire for remarks criticizing Jews.

Britain’s troubles with Northern Ireland persisted as the much-heralded accord of 1998 stalled and rival hard-line parties made election gains.

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