By Mark Schapiro
FRONTLINE/World correspondent Mark Schapiro during a trip to Poland, one of the European Union's newest members. (photo: Peter Cunningham)
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.
Lawless Sea," also reported by correspondent
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."
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.
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)
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."
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,
European Parliament members take part
in an emergency debate on Iraq at the European Parliament,
Wednesday Feb. 12, 2003. (AP/Wide World Photos)
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
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.
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.
Mark Schapiro in Poland.(photo: Peter Cunningham)
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
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.
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.
Budapest, capital of Hungary, as seen from the Danube River. (photo: Matt Graham)
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."
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.
View of the Hungarian Parliament building
in Budapest, Hungary. (photo: Matt Graham)
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
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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