Chris Patten, the EU commissioner in charge of Europe's international relations, has launched a scathing attack on American foreign policy - accusing the Bush administration of a dangerously "absolutist and simplistic" stance towards the rest of the world.
As EU officials warned of a rift opening up between Europe and the US wider than at any time for half a century, Mr Patten tells the Guardian it is time European governments spoke up and stopped Washington before it goes into "unilateralist overdrive".
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (L) shakes hands with Christopher Patten, Commissioner for External Relations of the European Commission, at the start of a meeting in Tokyo, January 20, 2002. Officials from over 60 governments and international organizations met in Tokyo to pledge funds for a reconstruction process for Afghanistan that aid experts estimate will take $15 billion over a decade. REUTERS/Haruyoshi Yamaguchi
"Gulliver can't go it alone, and I don't think it's helpful if we regard ourselves as so Lilliputian that we can't speak up and say it," he says in today's interview.
Mr Patten's broadside came as the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, warned the US yesterday not to give in to "the strong temptation of unilateralism".
Like France, Mr Patten singled out Mr Bush's branding of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as "an axis of evil".
"I find it hard to believe that's a thought-through policy," he says, adding that the phrase was deeply "unhelpful".
EU officials concede that the US and Europe could now be on a collision course over Iran, with the EU determined to forge a trade and cooperation agreement with Tehran just as Washington has deemed it an "evil" sponsor of terror.
Mr Patten insists that the European policy of "constructive engagement" with Iranian moderates and North Korea is much more likely to bring results than a US policy which so far consists of "more rhetoric than substance".
The commissioner's remarks represent the most public statement yet of what has become a growing sense of alarm in Europe's capitals at the increasingly belligerent tone adopted by Washington.
One senior EU official said: "It is humiliating and demeaning if we feel we have to go and get our homework marked by Dick Cheney and Condi Rice. We've got to stop thinking that the only policy we can have is one that doesn't get vetoed by the United States."
Publicly, the British government continues to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Mr Bush. But senior Labour figures admit they are deeply troubled by the newly aggressive thrust of US thinking - especially the hints that America could widen the war against terrorism to a clutch of new countries. They are likely to seize on Mr Patten's remarks as they press their case with Tony Blair.
In the interview the former Conservative party chairman delivers a devastatingly comprehensive critique of US strategy. He upbraids Washington for showing much more interest in stamping out terrorism than in tackling terror's root causes.
"When you're addressing that agenda, frankly, smart bombs have their place but smart development assistance seems to me even more significant," he said.
That view is widely held in Europe, typified by Mr Blair's much-quoted "heal the world" speech last year in Brighton. But it barely gets a hearing in today's Washington, Mr Patten concedes, especially since the dramatic success of the US-led military operation in Afghanistan. That has fed a new US mood of "intense triumphalism", according to EU officials, with secretary of state Colin Powell regarded as "a lone voice of reason".
Mr Bush's "axis of evil" speech appears to have been the last straw for EU policymakers. In today's interview, Mr Patten offers withering condemnation of the phrase.
Besides balking at the word "evil", he disputes whether the three countries named are an axis at all, insisting there is no evidence that they are working together on weapons of mass destruction. But Mr Patten also expresses great irritation with Washington for undermining long-established EU efforts to reach out to Tehran and Pyongyang.
"There is more to be said for trying to engage and to draw these societies into the international community than to cut them off," he says.
But Mr Patten's greatest ire is reserved for America's go-it-alone approach to international relations. "However mighty you are, even if you're the greatest superpower in the world, you cannot do it all on your own."
He calls on Europe's 15 member states to put aside their traditional wariness of angering the US and to speak up, forging an international stance of their own on issues ranging from the Middle East to global warming.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002