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Europe's time to choose
By Paul Belien
February 27, 2008
During the past two centuries, three major European continental nations have tried to impose their will on the rest of the continent, indeed, on the globe. First France in the early 19th century, then Germany in the first half of the 20th century, and finally Russia. France was defeated in 1815, Germany in 1918 and 1945, and Russia in 1989. Britain stood up to all these attempts of the major European countries to gain European and world hegemony. In 1815 America was too young to become involved in Europe's wars, but it became entangled in European affairs from 1917 onward. The willingness of Britain, and later also of America, to stand up against continental Europe's bullies made London and later Washington into the natural allies of the smaller European countries, which feel threatened by their big neighbors.
In the second half of the 20th century, France and Germany each realized that on their own their importance on a European and global level was going to decline. Hence, they became the motors of the so-called European unification process. Many — especially in Britain, but also in smaller countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands — perceive the European Union to be a joint Franco-German effort at dominating Europe.
Eastern European nations such as the Baltic states and Poland fear that one day the Franco-German axis might be enlarged by bringing in Russia. This fear was very tangible three years ago, when the friendship between then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian leader Vladimir Putin was observed with suspicion in the capital cities that lie between Berlin and Moscow.
After the fall of Communism and the implosion of the Soviet empire in 1989, all the small and middle-sized nations of the former Soviet bloc flocked to Brussels, applying for membership in the Franco-German EU. This may seem paradoxical, but the East Europeans hoped for protection from Paris and Berlin against Moscow. However, when Berlin and Moscow began planning a gas pipeline on the Baltic seabed, directly linking Germany to the Siberian gas fields, the sense of betrayal in Warsaw was huge and led to a rapid deterioration of Polish-German relations and to allegations that Berlin and Moscow were re-establishing the Hitler-Stalin pact that led to the German-Russian invasion of Poland in 1939.
Last year, when Nicolas Sarkozy became president of France, one of the first things he did was to signal to Russia that France was looking for closer cooperation. This, too, sent warning signals across the continent. Apart from Belgium, which is the Franco-German poodle, all nations, small and middle-sized, in Europe realize that the biggest threat to their independence is a Franco-German-Russian axis. If one day Paris, Berlin and Moscow decide to join forces the rest of Europe will have to do as they are told.
America is under the impression that "Europe" opposed the war in Iraq. However, when President Bush marched against Baghdad in 2003, many middle-sized and small European nations joined America's "coalition of the willing." Their military importance is marginal, but it is not true that Europe dissociated itself from Washington's war effort. France and Germany, plus their Belgian poodle, did, but many countries were eager to show their friendship and adherence to Washington. They rightly consider the United States, like Britain, to be a natural ally of the smaller European nations.
There were conservative European leaders — genuine friends of America — who had their misgivings against going to war in Iraq, but who were persuaded to go along because it was a unique opportunity to show that Berlin and Paris are not their masters.
Until last year, the possibility of a Franco-German-Russian alliance could not be ruled out, but today a major realignment of alliances is taking place in Europe. Many conservatives in Europe are upset at the immediate recognition by Washington, London, Paris and Berlin of Kosovo's unilaterally declared independence from Serbia. The Kosovar leaders are Albanian Muslims who had direct links to al Qaeda in the 1990s.
Russia's strong opposition against Kosovo's independence, owing to Moscow's firm bonds with Serbia, has suddenly brought it on a collision course, not only with Washington and London, but also with Paris and Berlin. Since Russia has been humiliated over Kosovo, it is unlikely that a Franco-German-Russian alliance will be in the offing soon. That is good news for the smaller East European nations, although Russia's threat that she, too, will now be inclined to support unilateral acts of ethnic minorities in the region worries them.
At the same time, however, pro-American European conservatives, who backed Mr. Bush's "war against terror" and defend national sovereignty against the EU's attempts to restrict it, are asking themselves a hitherto taboo question: Might Russia not be a better ally than America to preserve Europe from an Islam-friendly Franco-German dominance?
Paul Belien is editor of the Brussels Journal and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute.