TCS Daily

France's Public Blackmail

By Paul Aligica - February 19, 2003 12:00 AM

If there were any doubts that some world powers are determined to disregard the opinion of smaller countries, try to coerce them into accepting policies that serve only the interests of the powerful, use aggressive rhetoric, and in general act like an international bully, then French president Jacques Chirac dispelled those doubts on Feb. 17 by demonstrating that France is currently such a power.

At the end of Monday's European Union emergency summit on Iraq, the French president launched an arrogant, unprecedented attack on the Eastern European nations who recently signed letters backing the U.S. position on Iraq. Moreover, he warned that their stance could jeopardize their chances of joining the European Union, thus leaving no ambiguity about the French vision of what a union of European states should look like, who should run it, and how it should be run. "[The Eastern European nations' public support of America] is not really responsible behavior," he said at a news conference. "It is not well brought-up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet."

Chirac's statements deserve close scrutiny, as they mark a threshold in the history of public diplomacy: "Concerning the candidate countries, honestly I felt they acted frivolously because entry into the European Union implies a minimum of understanding for the others." He warned the candidates that their position could be "dangerous," because the parliaments of the 15 EU nations still have to ratify last December's decision for 10 new members to join the bloc on May 1, 2004. Chirac particularly warned Romania and Bulgaria, who are still negotiating to enter the European Union in 2007: "Romania and Bulgaria were particularly irresponsible to sign the letter when their position is really delicate," Chirac said. "If they wanted to diminish their chances of joining Europe, they could not have found a better way."

Chirac's remarks come on the heels of a previous humiliation of the Eastern Europeans by France and Germany: Britain, Spain, and other EU nations had suggested that the candidate nations attend Monday's emergency summit on Iraq, but France and Germany strongly rejected the idea. Thus, instead of attending the EU summit, the candidates were asked to travel to Brussels on Tuesday for a briefing by Greece, which currently holds the EU presidency. Although the EU authorities denied that these countries had been excluded from the summit because of their backing for Washington, none of the Eastern European countries had any doubt about the reasons behind the decision.

These developments cast France's international position in a very unappealing light. One must ask how France could pretend to lead the world's principled stand against a tyrannical and hegemonic "hyperpower" when its own behavior toward its European allies so clearly displays such arrogance and irresponsibility. One is forced to ask what principles France in fact stands for? A country cannot credibly speak in the name of the "smaller powers" while humiliating and insulting them. How could France expect the trust of the Eastern Europeans when its attitude toward them is that of a feudal lord toward a vassal?

With Chirac's declaration on Monday, public diplomacy reached a new low point: plain public blackmail. His words won't soon be forgotten.

Even more important, Chirac's declaration marks a turning point in the way the European integration process is perceived. There is little doubt that France has done considerable damage to the image that the European Union had managed to create over recent years in Eastern Europe -- and around the world -- as a community of free countries amiably negotiating their way to an ever closer union. Instead, a new image of the European Union is emerging from the ruins of the old picture, one of a Franco-German dominated block of countries intent on dominating the continent.

Until now, this view was considered a fixation of the extreme Euro-skeptics. Nowadays the question is out in the open: What is the true nature of the European Union? What is the real project behind all these institutional and political arrangements? What is the place of France and Germany in the emerging system? What are the legitimate goals of an EU member country? What are the legitimate uses of power in the Union? How should the Eastern European countries be seen and treated in the context of these European processes? These are questions that will be asked with ever-growing intensity in the future, long after the Iraqi crisis is over.

During the last couple of weeks, analysts have speculated about the negative implications of the French position on Iraq for the future of the United Nations and NATO. In the light of the recent developments, however, the EU project seems to have been damaged at least as much, if not more.

Paul Aligica is an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute's Center for Central European and Eurasian Studies.

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