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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004


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Untitled Document

Dispatches From a Small Planet: Election 2004

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By the People - Election 2004 PBS

EUROPE: Continental Drift
Mark Schapiro

FRONTLINE/World correspondent Mark Schapiro during a trip to Poland, one of the European Union's newest members. (photo: Peter Cunningham)
By Mark Schapiro
August 17, 2004


Last June, 155 million people voted across Europe in an election barely noticed by most Americans. But that vote for the European Parliament in Brussels -- now representing 450 million people in twenty-five different countries -- is not something to be ignored. In four days of voting, the European Union took a historic step, as it expanded its membership to include ten new countries and emerged as a powerful economic and political force. It's a new Europe that's beginning to see itself as independent of the U.S. -- sometimes even a rival.


See FRONTLINE/World's "The Lawless Sea," also reported by correspondent Mark Schapiro.

I arrived in Brussels as the election was taking place, one week before President Bush landed in Dublin for a summit meeting with top officials from the European Union. On June 13, election night for most of Europe, I was invited to join a hundred or so of the EU elite -- a mix of politicians, parliamentary aides, policymakers and multilingual technocrats -- as they awaited the returns in a reception hall on the seventh floor of the Parliament. Election adrenalin spiked the crowd, who sampled fine wine and gourmet ham and fish.

The U.S. presidential race was not top of the agenda -- everyone had their own fate to worry about that night -- but it was right under the surface. By 2am returns showed a slight shift to the right in the make-up of the European Parliament and conversation shifted to the upcoming arrival of the American president. "Now everybody's trying to figure out what to do about the photo-ops," an EU veteran confided. "No one wants to appear on the dais [in Dublin] smiling with George Bush."

Peace demonstration

Demonstrators wave peace rainbow flags as they walk past the Coliseum during a peace rally in downtown Rome, Saturday, March 20, 2004. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Widespread opposition to the war in Iraq has made Bush a liability to any European politician -- as Jose Aznar in Spain learned and, increasingly, Tony Blair in the UK is discovering. Or, perhaps I should say a liability to any politician in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, I would find during a visit to Budapest, there is more sympathy for Bush. But European watchfulness over the upcoming presidential election goes deeper than Iraq. Indeed, the election is viewed in Brussels -- the capital of an integrated Europe -- from a new position as the EU evolves into a superpower that for the first time in history is based not on nationalism or military strength, but on the idea that national interests can be better expressed collectively than individually.

As I walked around Brussels, I saw huge cranes everywhere, looming over vast construction pits where steel towers are rising into new EU office buildings and the integrated Europe is taking literal form. With a population far larger than that of the United States, and an internal market stretching from Portugal to Estonia that rivals ours in affluence, the EU is beginning to emerge as a major counterweight to the United States.

The U.S. is starting to feel the EU's increasing clout. Over the last year alone, the conservative party coalition that dominates the European Parliament has found common ground with Socialists and Greens in supporting policies that challenge the way American companies produce chemicals, manufacture cars, conduct genetic research and handle financial services. U.S. corporate titans like Microsoft were fined $600 million for anti-competitive practices; Philip Morris agreed to pay $1.25 billion in July to resolve accusations that it had helped to organize smuggling of its own cigarettes into the EU. Trans-Atlantic corporate mergers have been trumped repeatedly by the EU's Competition Commission. The day after the election, a Danish Member of European Parliament (MEP), Paul Rasmussen, told me that despite the Parliament's tilt to the right, he anticipated that "our willingness to challenge the United States when appropriate will continue."

Inside European Parliment

European Parliament members take part in an emergency debate on Iraq at the European Parliament, Wednesday Feb. 12, 2003. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Old assumptions about the relationship between the United States and Europe -- that the U.S. takes the lead on international political and economic matters -- are being challenged. I heard many times the criticism that the United States, in its dealings with Europe, still operates under basic Cold War assumptions in which Europe, under America's protective cover, provided the critical bulwark against Soviet expansion. But now Europeans see themselves more as equal partners -- and at times, in the economic realm at least, as competitors.

Even in the cultural realm, where Hollywood and fears of U.S. "cultural imperialism" have long loomed large, Europe is asserting itself. The popularity of American television is declining in major European markets; during frequent visits to Europe, I can't help but notice the European films and bands that are filling evermore space at cinemas and nightclubs. When Europeans go to American movies, they often pick the ones that the White House doesn't particularly like; "Fahrenheit 911" has been a box office smash across Europe this summer. And here in Brussels, while Americans debated Twentieth Century Fox's attempt to distance itself from its own eco-soap opera, "The Day After Tomorrow," EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom took her entire staff to see the film at a Brussels cinema -- to be viewed as a source of inspiration (however inadequate the science) for her office's serious efforts to deal with the dangers of global warming.

The growing continental drift between the United States and our European allies is at least partly self-initiated.

President Bush's invasion of Iraq certainly had a powerful impact in uniting Europe. Europeans oppose the administration's Iraq policy in overwhelming numbers. "We should give a gold medal to George Bush for spurring European integration," quipped Sabine Meyer, a foreign policy adviser to the Green Party faction in the Parliament.

Washington's opposition to the Kyoto accord also infuriates most Europeans. Kathalijne Buitenweg, a Dutch Green MEP who was anxiously checking the election returns on her cell phone as I interviewed her on election night, says that a priority for her Party will be establishing a 'Kyoto Tax' on industries from countries that have not signed the Kyoto accord -- i.e., the United States. "Why," she asked, "should America benefit from not signing Kyoto, while other countries pay the price of taking those responsibilities?" The week before, Buitenweg had gathered with a group of parliamentarians and environmentalists for a champagne party in front of the U.S. Embassy to celebrate Russia's signing of the Kyoto accord.

Mark Schapiro

FRONTLINE/World correspondent Mark Schapiro in Poland.(photo: Peter Cunningham)
Spilling onto the sidewalk in Brussels, that champagne was testament to a new feeling in Europe these days -- that despite U.S. opposition, international initiatives are moving ahead. First there was Kyoto, then the International Criminal Court, then the Land Mine Treaty. Snubbed by the Bush Administration, these initiatives are nevertheless gaining international legitimacy without American participation. While the Iraq war highlighted Europe's differences with the U.S., the EU has been pursuing an independent foreign policy on other fronts as well, quietly extending its influence through trade pacts, human rights and peace initiatives in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Shortly after I interviewed Sabine Meyer, she helped lead a group of MEPs from every major party in the Parliament to Kashmir, where the EU has been trying to broker a peace in a region where the U.S. is regarded with great suspicion.

The European Union has not gone untended by the Bush administration. These days President Bush has been trying to reach out to the Europeans for support in rebuilding Iraq -- thus far to little avail. At the same time administration officials from the State Department and U.S. Trade Representative's office have become frequent visitors to Brussels in efforts to weaken EU regulations on everything from toxic chemicals to genetically engineered food.

Anyone spending even a brief time around the EU realizes Bush is not popular. However, few MEPs indicate their sentiments explicitly -- they may, after all, have to work with him for another four years. But pro-Kerry sentiment inside the EU is palpable. During my visit, I learned that in early June the EU welcomed a special emissary sent by Senator Kerry -- John Edwards. Kerry sent Edwards to "get a reading" on the EU's major concerns, according to Fraser Cameron, a former EU representative to Washington, now Director of Studies of a Brussels think-tank, the European Policy Center. Top on the EU list were U.S. policies toward Israel, and the U.S. refusal to sign the Kyoto accord -- both areas in which there has been a wide gulf between the United States and Europe in political circles and popular opinion. At the EU, the mere act of listening to what they had to say was considered a welcome development.



When Donald Rumsfeld last year disparaged our long term allies across the Atlantic as the "old Europe," and praised the new capitalist countries of Eastern Europe as the "new Europe," he provoked disbelief and howls of fury in cities like Paris, Berlin and Rome.

In Eastern Europe the reaction was more complex: From Warsaw to Vilnius to Budapest, people had been struggling for years to be accepted into Europe and its institutions. Rumsfeld's comment put them in an uncomfortable position: forced, in a backhanded sort of way, to choose between two allies, the U.S. and the EU -- each of whose support would be critical to their post-Soviet success.

But the fact is, Rumsfeld was onto something, and that is a real division over perceptions of the United States within Europe. European opinion is by no means as mono-chromatic as either Rumsfeld or his critics suggest. But the change in attitude toward the U.S. is quite pronounced when you head east--source of the EU's new members, half a dozen countries once bound by the Soviet Union.


Budapest, capital of Hungary, as seen from the Danube River. (photo: Matt Graham)
In the old Jewish quarter of the Hungarian capital of Budapest, a warren of narrow streets that was once the ghetto is rapidly turning into the new hip center of the city. Old stone courtyards built into what were the last century's tenements are being transformed into bars and outdoor cinemas, and are filled with the Hungarian peers of all those young, highly educated multilingual Eurocrats in Brussels. Here, as in Brussels, it is easy to speak English. Many sharp young Hungarians now see joining the governing structures of the European Union as an exciting career option. The difference between the under-thirty crowd here and a comparable Brussels watering hole is that the deep skepticism of the United States and outright opposition to the Bush administration does not cross the dividing line that was once the Iron Curtain.

For one thing, former President Ronald Reagan remains a revered figure here, widely praised as the man who prompted the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Most East European accounts of the historic unraveling of the Soviet empire give barely a nod to the man who helped set those forces in motion from the inside, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.) And the billions of dollars in foreign investment which the U.S. plowed into Hungary after 1989 helped create a far more sympathetic view of the United States than is now predominant west of Budapest. That loyalty was put to the test during the Iraq war, when Hungary agreed to train a delegation of Iraqi police--though it did not, like its neighbors Poland and the Czech Republic, provide any troops to the U.S.-led coalition.

Agnes Holzer, a 27-year-old Hungarian now working as an analyst for the European Commission -- the executive arm of Parliament -- in Budapest, explained to me in one of those old Jewish quarter cafes that she is fascinated by American politics and, like many of her friends, supports President Bush's invasion of Iraq. Her explanation catches at one of the many distinctions that the EU's new members from the east will be bringing with them to Brussels: "Here in Hungary we understand tyranny. We support him in Iraq because it is an attack against tyranny."

In Hungary, the U.S. presidential election regularly makes front-page news: Several people told me, only half-joking, that whoever was elected president of the United States would be more important than the president of Hungary. Here there was far less skepticism of George Bush, and far more skepticism of John Kerry's ability, as one twenty-something student told me, "to deal with the sons of bitches of the world."


View of the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary. (photo: Matt Graham)
In Budapest I found that among educated, politically aware people, the European Parliamentary elections were a hugely significant event: Fifteen years after the non-violent revolutions of 1989, they were finally back in the fold of what was often, during the communist era, referred to as the world of "normal countries" (a phrase now sometimes spoken with a touch of post-modern irony). Among many others, however, there was a clear wariness about submitting Hungary to another distant authority--substitute Brussels for Moscow, however unfair the comparison. That wariness combined with "election fatigue" (after a series of national and municipal elections over the previous year) caused a disappointing voter turnout in Hungary -- with just under 40 percent of the electorate voting in the European Parliament races.

I had been in Hungary in 1989, and watched as the streets churned with incredible energy and excitement and new political parties and movements were born. One of the favored chants of demonstrators at that time, as they pounded the pavements and rallied against the old hated symbols of communism was: 'Back to Europe, Back to Europe!' I've returned a number of times since and now, fifteen years later, I'd been invited to speak at a conference sponsored by the Hungarian Europe Society. Top EU officials and parliamentarians, along with think tank residents and academics, were gathering at Central European University in downtown Budapest to explore with Hungarian, Polish, Czech and other new EU members the long-term political and economic implications of their joining the EU.

As an overflow crowd soon became absorbed in the mechanics and meaning of EU membership, I was struck by the fact that my own presentation -- on the implications of EU expansion for the United States -- was practically the sole reference to the U.S. through the course of the conference. Hungary was rapidly becoming deeply imbedded in the fabric of Europe. As the Hungarians and their former Soviet-bloc allies weighed the obligations and benefits of EU membership, and debated the merits of national identity versus collective power, it seemed clear that memories of the Cold War, harsh as they might be, will be fading fast and that there will also be changes in how Hungarians view American politics and future presidential races. Indeed, in polls conducted since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, support for the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq are starting to decline significantly in Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.


The New Europe

For the first time in recent history, foreign policy is emerging as one of the core issues in the U.S. presidential campaign. Senator Kerry has based a good deal of his challenge on his ability to act more "statesmanlike" than President Bush. Bush stakes his presidency on the "firmness and resolve" with which he's dealt with our enemies. In the U.S. Kerry may downplay his ability to speak French, but at the EU, even though English has replaced French as the language of diplomacy, Kerry still scores points for multilingualism and multilateralsim.

While the sentiment in Europe is largely anti-Bush -- a Pew Research Center poll reports plummeting support for the United States in Europe since the Iraq invasion -- there is a counter-trend unfolding as well. When Wilfried Martens, head of the European People's Party -- a coalition of Christian Democratic parties that now dominates the new Parliament -- tried (thus far unsuccessfully) to insert a reference to "God" into the European Constitution, his sentiments suggested a clear affinity with President Bush's ties with American churches. And on August 12th, in a move suggesting a desire to narrow the divide with the United States, the new European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso announced the appointment to important EU posts of political figures from the UK, Hungary and other eastern European countries.

Europeans on the left, right and center know there is a lot at stake in the U.S. presidential election. But while the Europeans are watching us, one thing that hasn't quite hit home yet in the United States is that we should be watching them, as the European Union continues to develop into a powerful political and economic force. Those elections to that distant parliament in Brussels for that complicated thing called the European Union are something that matter to us too.

Mark Schapiro is Editorial Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. He writes frequently about international affairs, and was correspondent for the Frontline World story, "The Lawless Sea," about the wreck of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain.

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