Published on Tuesday, April 1, 2003 by the lndependent/UK
'New' Europe Distances Itself From War
by Stephen Castle in Brussels
With troops locked in a bloody and unpredictable struggle in Iraq, leaders from "new" Europe are distancing themselves from the war that the US claims they back.
The conflict in the Gulf is unpopular with voters, and support for Washington and London has declined as casualties have mounted. Meanwhile, some countries that never backed war have vented their anger at being listed among America's 45-nation coalition of allies.
Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minster, began his political retreat before a shot was fired. Mr Berlusconi was a signatory of the Anglo-Spanish letter that backed the US before the conflict begun. That did not translate into concrete military support, however. Last week, Mr Berlusconi was at pains to insist that the deployment in northern Iraq of 1,000 US paratroopers who had been stationed in Italy did not break a pledge that Italian bases would not be used for direct attacks on Saddam Hussein.
Denmark, which has backed the action, had to scale back its small military deployment because of parliamentary opposition. The Netherlands, which did not sign the Anglo-Spanish letter but was sympathetic, has ruled out military involvement, fearful of destabilizing negotiations to form a coalition government.
Countries which took a tough, pro-American line are encountering political difficulties. Jose Maria Aznar, the Prime Minister of Spain, which has dispatched 9,000 troops to Iraq for humanitarian work, is under intense pressure from domestic opposition.
The publication of pictures of elite Polish troops posing for photos with US soldiers in Iraq provoked a backlash in Poland. Although Warsaw remains a firm supporter of the US, surveys suggest only 20 per cent of Poles think their troops should be involved in fighting.
The weight of public opposition has forced countries to face in opposite directions. Ireland has made Shannon airport available to the US, but failed to endorse the war.
Across the ex-Communist nations of Europe, identified by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary, as part of the "coalition of the willing", sentiment has proved ambivalent. One explanation is that the Anglo-Spanish letter endorsed by three of the applicant nations, and a subsequent declaration by a further 10 eastern European states, did not commit them to supporting hostilities. Some leaders went along with the formulation on the basis that taking a tough line might force President Saddam to back down.
In others the politics have changed: in Czech Republic, which is included in Washington's list of coalition nations, the Anglo-Spanish letter was signed by the outgoing president, Vaclav Havel.
His successor Vaclav Klaus has warned that using force to impose democracy on Iraq is a notion "from another universe" and sets a dangerous precedent.
Several nations provided logistical support because failing to do so would have provoked a diplomatic schism with Washington. Yet these nuances have been brushed aside by a Pentagon in its efforts to present the image of broad support.
Croatia was presented as part of the "coalition of the willing" on the basis that it opened its airspace and bases to US civilian aircraft. But Stipe Mesic, the President, denounced the war as "illegitimate" because it lacked UN backing. Slovenia has also rejected the idea that it backs the conflict.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd