Bush's re-election gets frosty reception from 'Old Europe'

By Stephen Castle in Brussels and Andrew Buncombe in Washington

The Independent

Published: 06 November 2004

Moves to improve the EU's fractious and often testy relations with Washington were undermined yesterday by a fresh Anglo-French clash over Iraq and Europe's response to the re-election of President Bush.

A call from Tony Blair for EU leaders to "work with the new reality" created by the American election result was given a dusty response by the French President, Jacques Chirac, who was the main opponent of the US-led war in Iraq.

Asked at an EU summit about Mr Bush's re-election, M. Chirac said: "It is evident that Europe, now more than ever, must strengthen its unity and dynamism when faced with this great world power. More than ever, we must reinforce Europe politically and economically," M. Chirac added, as he repeated his calls for a "multi-polar" world.

The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, responded: "I respect President Chirac but I don't always agree with him. He has an interesting point of view."

During the three-and-a-half years of Mr Bush's first term, relations with many European nations descended to what was probably an all-time low - partly over Washington's military endeavours but partly over trade sanctions. At one point, the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, made disparaging remarks - aimed at France and Germany - about "old Europe" and the need to deal with "newer" countries that were formerly in the Soviet bloc.

M. Chirac left yesterday's summit of EU leaders without meeting Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, though the French President insisted that was not a snub.

However, he did find time for a meeting with the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder and the Spanish premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, both critics of the US-led operation in Iraq. The French and Spanish leaders agreed to boost ties and co-ordinate efforts to campaign for a "yes" vote in their respective referendums on the EU constitutions.

Meanwhile Guy Verhofstadt, the Prime Minister of Belgium, argued it was time to stop distinguishing between those nations that are sending troops to Iraq and those who do not as "good and bad countries".

Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch Prime Minister who chaired the meeting of 25 EU leaders, made a phone call to Mr Bush and congratulated him on his re-election.

"We share the same values," he said. "We want to fight terrorism, problems in parts of the world, poverty - all the issues make it necessary to work together."

Amid talk of fresh splits, Mr Schröder also played down the differences, telling journalists that he had spoken to Mr Bush yesterday and that relations between Berlin and Washington were "completely intact". A formal communiqué "warmly congratulated" Mr Bush on his victory and the mutual interest in a stable Iraq was stressed by several EU leaders.

Earlier, Mr Blair had ruffled feathers with a newspaper interview in which he claimed that some unidentified Europeans "were in a state of denial" over Mr Bush's re-election.

Asked to elaborate yesterday, Mr Blair said: "There are some people who have not wanted to come to terms with the changes over the past few months. We have to move on, there is a new reality so let's work with the new reality." However, Mr Blair argued that his colleagues understand the need "to work with the American and with the Iraqi governments".

Yesterday's summit rubberstamped a €31.5m (£22m) package of financial aid to help Iraq develop its justice system, and to assist funding a UN protection force in the run-up to elections in January.

Mr Allawi sought to play down remarks earlier in the week in which he was reported to have described France and Germany as "spectators" in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. "I never said Europe was a spectator," he said yesterday.

The French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, replied: "We don't want to be spectators - we want to be an actors. Every European country has the same interest".

Meanwhile, Mr Straw said the four European states along with Britain who had committed troops to Iraq had told Mr Allawi they were determined to stay the course.

"The five heads of government from contributor forces to the MNF who spoke [to yesterday's summit], all were very firm about their commitment to keeping their troops there for as long as it took," he told a news conference.

Mr Straw's comments follow reports that one of the nations providing troops, Hungary, is planning a withdrawal from Iraq next year.