Europe's leaders pay price for pleasing Washington

By Quentin Peel

Financial Times

Published: February 23 2007

The cumbersome coalition government in Italy headed by Romano Prodi suffered from many strains between its far left and centrist factions, yet it is no real surprise that the straw that broke the camel's back was the issue of relations with Washington.

For the past nine months Mr Prodi's government has pursued a twin strategy in foreign policy: Atlanticism and Europeanism. It is a traditional Italian double act, and one that has worked in the past: loyal to Nato and loyal to the European Union. But since the launch of President George W. Bush's "war on terror", and the invasion of Iraq, it has been much harder to keep those two priorities in balance.

The irony is that the break-up should have come over Rome's involvement in Afghanistan, which should have been the least controversial element of Italy's involvement in wider US-led actions.

"Italy's presence in Afghanistan is not being seriously discussed," a senior member of the Italian government said less than a month ago. "It is different from the presence in Iraq. It is led by Nato and developed under the aegis of the United Nations."

But then he admitted there was still a popular backlash against any policy seen to be too tamely following Washington.

"I believe the US deserves a thinking ally, an ally that can ask questions and can criticise," he said. "I am worried about the bitter and harsh anti-Americanism that is developing in many countries."

The fall of the Prodi government is the most dramatic recent example of the price paid by European governments for being too close to Washington.

Iraq was the reason José-María Aznar's Popular party government lost power in Spain, in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings in March 2004. The bombings brought to a head simmering resentment over Mr Aznar's decision to send troops to Iraq.

Silvio Berlusconi, Mr Prodi's predecessor as Italian prime minister, also suffered a backlash against his enthusiastic support for US policy in Iraq. But Mr Prodi and his centre-left colleagues clearly believed that involvement in Afghanistan would be a safe demonstration of support for the Nato alliance.

In spite of the apparent signs of reconciliation between European governments and the US in the second Bush administration, public opinion in Europe has remained far more suspicious. That has been reflected in anxious debates on Afghanistan, the "war on terror" and such concerns in Europe as the CIA "rendition" flights used to take terrorist suspects away from European countries to places where they could be more freely interrogated.

The last government in the Netherlands was deeply divided over its involvement in Afghanistan, with opposition from the junior member of the coalition - the liberal D66 movement - that presaged the eventual collapse of the government. In the end, the deployment of 2,200 Dutch troops was approved by a big majority after a passionate debate in parliament and is not a divisive issue in the new grand coalition.

Germany, which has 3,000 troops in northern Afghanistan, is adamant that its soldiers will not be involved in heavy fighting in the south but will focus rather on stabilisation and reconstruction in the north. It is a formula that keeps the conservative and social democrat wings of the ruling coalition together.

The Berlin government has come in for sharp criticism from Nato allies, led by the US and UK, for its unwillingness to send its troops closer to the real conflict zone. Yet even the issue of sending six Tornado reconnaissance aircraft to bolster Nato forces in the south is going through prolonged debate. It has been approved by the German cabinet but has yet to be debated in parliament.

In Spain, the government has firmly but flatly refused to increase its deployment of 550 troops in western Afghanistan, and the killing of a woman soldier on Wednesday - the first death in combat for the Spanish forces in Afghanistan - has prompted new questioning in the media.