What “New Europe”?

The Europeans are divided, but not over Iraq.

Few phrases have gained quicker currency in the geopolitical lexicon than “new Europe,” now used to denote the broad swath of fledgling democracies in Central and Eastern Europe—from Estonia in the north to Albania in the south—whose leaders have signed on to President Bush’s campaign to oust Saddam Hussein. Europeans living in the former Eastern Bloc, so the “new Europe” theory goes, know the evils of totalitarianism firsthand; having spent the Cold War in the oppressive orbit of the Soviet Union, they are sympathetic to President Bush’s hard line on Iraq.

It’s a tidy notion, but as an American who’s lived east of the former Iron Curtain for more than six years, I can attest that it’s quite false. Despite the pro-U.S. statements their leaders have signed, polls show the general public in these countries oppose the war by a wide margin.

Conservative pundits are largely responsible for the myth-mongering, which posits a new continental divide closely approximating the former Iron Curtain. Europe is divided between “old” and “new,” they say, between those who view Europe as a counterweight to American military adventurism and those who recognize American power as the guardian of democracy and freedom. John C. Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation wrote, “The dirty little secret in alliance politics is that the farther east one goes in Europe, the more pro-American you find both the political elites and public opinion. … The Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians know that it is American military, economic, and political might that safeguards the world, not debating societies like the United Nations.”

Really? How is it, then, that 82 percent of Hungarians oppose war under any circumstances? This shows a greater level of opposition than in Germany or France, where polls show 70 to 80 percent against war. Neoconservatives hailing the emergence of democracy in the region might do well to pay attention to what the people in these countries, rather than political elites, have to say about the matter of Iraq.

In Prague, outgoing president Vaclav Havel signed the statement of solidarity with the United States, but Czech polls showed 76 percent of respondents oppose a war without a second U.N. resolution—and 67 percent oppose it even with one. (The Czech government has distanced itself from Havel; Prime Minister Vladmir Spidla was asked to sign the statement and refused. The prime minister and his Cabinet, not the president, hold most political power in the Czech Republic.) In one of the few media stories to focus on popular opposition to the war in “new Europe,” the Associated Press reported that Slovakian support for an Iraq attack without U.N. approval is almost nonexistent.

The average Pole is perhaps the closest the United States has to a model post-Communist ally, with 52 percent saying the country should give political backing to the United States in the event of an invasion of Iraq, according to a January poll. Yet despite a stronger military tradition than most of its neighbors, 63 percent of Poles oppose sending troops to join the action—hardly a ringing endorsement. The Poles’ is perhaps the shrewdest position of all: “Regime change? We’re on board. Go ahead, you first.” (A poll released Tuesday, moreover, indicated Polish opposition to war had risen to 75 percent.)

What accounts for the sharp split between what the leaders of these countries say and what the citizens think? Some of it is pure principle on the part of intellectuals in the political class, many of whom are ex-dissidents like Havel who saw the United States as a beacon of freedom during the struggle against communism. The former playwright has already left public office and has little to gain by ingratiating himself with Washington. Jailed by the Communist regime for speaking his mind, he’s not known as a sycophant. Like Tony Blair, he supports the war because he feels force is justified, public opinion be damned.

But principle alone does not account for near across-the-board support, given largely in the face of domestic opposition, from democratically elected leaders in 13 formerly Communist countries: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Albania. A common thread these countries share, in addition to the legacy of communism, is a pending application to join the European Union. Eight of the 13 are currently in the thick of membership negotiations, slated for entry in 2004. Joining the European Union is widely accepted, from the political elite to the common voter, as the most important political event on the near horizon.

By comparison, the Iraq affair is a distant debate over which these small countries will have little sway. Despite widespread mistrust of American motives, a politician’s stand for or against the war is unlikely to play a deciding role in local elections. A smorgasbord of local political issues—rising unemployment and reforms necessary for EU entry, for example—are far more likely to influence voters.

This gives elected officials in the East wide latitude in using the war issue to send a diplomatic message to their international counterparts. For many, the Iraq spat is a proxy battle for the forthcoming redefinition of the European Union. The message to EU powerhouses France and Germany is clear: We’ll join you, but that doesn’t mean we’ll follow you.

If East European publics are suspicious of military might in Washington, they’re equally wary of diplomatic condescension in Brussels. Ruling parties here see eventual EU accession as an economic, political, and even a cultural necessity, but trepidation has been mounting for years. This was true long before Jacques Chirac’s outburst on Monday, in which he told the East to either stand with France and Germany or “shut up,” sparking angry recriminations. Negotiations over aid packages, along with public scolding over the pace of reforms, has fostered resentment and, in some cases, outright anti-EU rhetoric from opposition parties.

With reforms, including the drafting of a constitution, currently under way to make EU governing bodies more democratic and transparent, East European politicians are beginning to stake out positions in the ongoing debate over the direction of Europe. They see the question on the table as clearly as anybody else. The shrewder politicians in these capitals know the European Union is a giant social experiment whose outcome remains uncertain—but one over which they will soon enjoy a good deal of control.

Like all Europeans, the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians are ready to unite, but they are anxious to preserve national institutions and cultural identity from the hegemony of distant authorities in Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. These conflicting impulses drive the Iraq debate. In the murky future of a 25-member EU, it’s becoming clear that the new nations will not cede sovereignty to Franco-German dominance without a fight.

When it comes to public attitudes toward U.S. military power, there’s no continental divide between “new Europe” and “old Europe.” The Europeans are conflicted, but not over Iraq: The conflict is about Europe itself.