- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Saddam Hussein's lethal chemicals are still safely hidden away in the Iraqi laboratories, safe from the eyes of the U.N. inspectors, but their power to poison international relations has been proven. Relations between the United States, France and Germany have reached a nadir over Iraq. Within Europe, mass demonstrations are challenging the governments who have come out in support of American policy. And now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is offering himself as a mediator between the United States and Europe. Whatever will be next?
Among those who have felt the sting of Saddam's poisons firsthand are the Central and Eastern European countries, whose aspirations to join the European Union have been thrown into turmoil ever since a group of them (known as the Vilnius 10) dared to come out in support of the United States on Feb. 5. Following by days a strongly supportive letter to the Wall Street Journal by eight other European countries, it brought down the wrath of the French and German governments on their heads. As French President Jacques Chirac explained to these 10 sovereign countries, they had missed a good opportunity to "shut up."
Understandably, this caused great offense on the other side. The people of Eastern and Central Europe not so long ago got out from under the thumb of the Soviet Union, only now to find the French and Germans telling them what to do in the name of the European Union. The waves of international repercussions have not yet subsided.
This is one of the great wrenching ironies of the situation we are now in. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Warsaw Pact countries have been striving to join the institutions of the West, to rejoin the Europe from which they were separated by the Yalta Agreement of 1945, in which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt left them to the tender mercies of the Soviets.
A great deal has already been invested in their accession on both sides. The aspirant countries have painstakingly over a decade reformed their societies and adopted the entire body of EU laws and regulations contained in the union's "acquis communautaire." The European Union, for its part, paid almost 30 billion euros to aspirants between 1990 and 1999 and is expected to transfer another 80 billion euros between 2000 and 2006.
And now, they are so close to the coveted goal of membership of the European Union and NATO (which three of them already received in 1999), that they can taste it. In November, NATO accepted the candidacies of seven new members the Baltic countries, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania. In December, at a summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, the European Union accepted the applications of 10 new countries from Central and Eastern Europe, and the Baltics as well as Malta and Cyprus.
Most of these countries have referendums on accession coming up over the next year, starting in March, but particularly since a fight erupted in NATO over defense planning for Turkey in case of an Iraq war, some wonder now whether NATO is really reliable. And the Eastern and Central Europeans, who have seen themselves as a bridge between the United States and Europe, now find themselves between a rock and a hard place.
Their diplomats here in Washington speak softly, but with tremendous concern about wanting to assert their loyalty to the United States and their abhorrence of Saddam Hussein's totalitarianism, but without wanting to jeopardize their future within Europe.
One of the most articulate is Slovakian Ambassador Martin Butora, who has long experience of Washington ways. "The way we were treated by the French president was considered inappropriate by every member of the Vilnius 10," he says. Yet, at the same time, "We feel like genuine Europeans, but want to keep the Atlantic link alive. We would like the United States as a partner of Europe." This is clearly easier said than done.
The question is whether the eruption within NATO and the European Union over Iraq is a symptom or a cause. Is there enough inherent value, cohesion and investment in these European and trans-Atlantic institutions for them to survive the current crisis?
One European diplomat notes, "The institutions coming out of World War II are in crisis, the United Nations, the EU and NATO. It is very sad from a European point of view if not necessarily from an American." For those who have almost made it through the door of the institutions of the West, it is most agonizing of all.

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