- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 6 (UPI) — The war against Iraq has yet to begin but the fall-out from the conflict has already started to settle over Europe's political elites like a deadly dust.

Britain and Spain's backing for U.S. President George W. Bush's hard-line stance against Baghdad has led to a collapse in public support for the leaders of the two western European states.

In London, recent opinion polls put the opposition Conservatives on a level pegging with Tony Blair's ruling Labor Party for the first time since the center-left swept to power in 1997 — largely as a result of hostility to the prime minister's bullish stance on Iraq.

And in Spain, where more than 3 million protesters took to the streets in last month's anti-war demonstrations, the Socialists have now overtaken right-wing Premier Jose-Maria Aznar to become the country's most popular party.

But Blair and Aznar's unswerving support for Bush has not only dented their national standing, it may also put a halt to their European ambitions.

Both leaders favor creating the powerful new post of EU president and until recently were odds-on favorites for the prestigious position.

Just six months ago, Blair bestrode the European political landscape like a colossus. With the largest parliamentary majority of any EU leader, he had free reign to conduct European policy as he saw fit. He could claim credit for pushing Bush down the United Nations path on Iraq. And sensing the Franco-German relationship was cooling, the British prime minister forged a series of strong alliances with right-wing governments in Italy, Spain and Denmark.

Now, in "old European" countries like France, Germany and Belgium, Blair is almost as reviled as Bush.

"People talk of the prime minister straddling the Atlantic. His footing may be secure in Washington, but it is not any longer in Europe," former French Minister for Europe Pierre Moscovici wrote in the Financial Times Wednesday.

"By putting trans-Atlantic solidarity before European unity, he runs the grave risk of dividing Europe and cutting Britain off from the Franco-German partnership, which is after all much closer to European public opinion."

Given the level of animosity between Blair and French President Jacques Chirac, it is difficult to see Paris supporting the British premier's bid to become the EU's first president.

It is also hard to see Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder forgiving Aznar for penning the infamous "letter of eight" European countries backing the U.S. position on Iraq.

Another possible candidate for EU president — Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh-Rasmussen — may also pay the price for supporting Bush if European leaders decide to set up the high-profile post next year.

Although Fogh-Rasmussen, who was widely praised for wrapping up membership talks with 10 EU applicant states in December, has been careful not to antagonize the French and Germans over Iraq, he was also a signatory of the Wall Street Journal letter.

But it is not just "new European" leaders who have seen their EU stock fall, opponents of war may also have blown their chances of leading the bloc.

Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who handled the 15-member club's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, has been tipped as a future European Commission president when current incumbent Romano Prodi steps down next year.

German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer has also hinted that he might be interested in the post of the EU's "top staffer."

However, given both men's stubborn opposition to military action against Baghdad, it is hard to see the likes of Blair, Aznar and Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi backing their candidacies.

Simon Hix, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, says the Iraqi issue has lead to a "real polarization" among Europe's current crop of leaders.

"The traditional European method of consensus-building seems to have gone out of the window for the moment," he says, predicting "pretty acrimonious battles" over the choice of future EU leaders.

Of course, the present crisis may blow over quickly and politicians who find themselves languishing in the opinion polls could bounce back. But EU leaders, like elephants, have long memories and the next time they are asked to choose one of their own to lead the pack, they might find the task very tough indeed.

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