How sad it is that just as Greece – the black sheep of old – should become a model of EU propriety and get its turn at the club’s presidency the club itself should begin to fall apart because of disagreements between its big boys. Athens had been afraid the Iraqi issue could derail its ambitious EU presidency but it surely did not anticipate a crisis of these proportions at so early a stage. But Prime Minister Costas Simitis should not take it personally. The issue is much bigger than Greece. Differences of opinion between EU members as to how strong the case is for a US-led war against Iraq suddenly appeared in danger of spiraling out of control on Thursday, with the surprise publication of a staunchly pro-US letter by the prime ministers of EU members Britain, Spain, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and candidate countries Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Most other members, including the poor Greek presidency, had no inkling of this until they read the letter in 12 newspapers, or, like the EU’s foreign policy and defense «supremo,» Javier Solana, heard about it on the radio. (It makes one cringe, doesn’t it?) In the heat of this very heated moment, perhaps the saddest thing about the gang of eight’s letter is the image of Tony Blair talking on the telephone with Simitis on Wednesday and not telling him that he and seven others were going to make a big splash in the next day’s newspapers with their pledge of support for the United States. If it is true that the Greek presidency knew nothing of the initiative, was this so that Athens (given its own wariness of war) would not be placed in a spot, or was it because the «eight» did not want to spoil the effect of the surprise on the day that two of them – Blair and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi – were jetting off to bask in George W. Bush’s glow in Washington? Foreign Ministry spokesman Panayiotis Beglitis said on Thursday that he could not rule out Blair and Berlusconi perhaps having mentioned something to Simitis before he learned about the letter from his visiting Hungarian counterpart, Peter Medgyessy, whose country is not even a member of the EU yet. Whatever the case, Athens had been bursting with pride since Monday over what it perceived as its success in getting the 15 EU foreign ministers to issue a joint statement in Brussels in which they demanded that Saddam Hussein abide by UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and called for the UN’s inspectors to be given more time to look for the weapons of mass destruction that have not been found. The conclusion was, typically, the least common denominator among the widely varying positions of EU members. Leading the camp of those who wanted to express more robust support of the United States was Britain. At the other end were the Germans, who ruled out war completely, and the French, who would like more proof against Saddam and a second resolution by the Security Council authorizing war. Monday’s decision was supposed to keep everyone happy by not saying anything that could upset either camp. But by being wishy-washy it had already shown that the EU was taking the path of least resistance. President Bush’s declaration on Tuesday that he was sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Security Council on Feb. 5, with evidence regarding Saddam’s alleged weapons and links to terrorism, provided a perfect opportunity for the skeptics to tone down their comments gradually and perhaps come on board. This, evidently, was not good enough for other members of the club, who to be fair, have made no secret of their belief that it is very important to show strong support for the United States. Jose-Maria Aznar of Spain and Blair began to circulate a draft letter. This was obviously in response to the French and German positions. But the atmosphere had been poisoned by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s comment a week earlier in which he dismissed France and Germany as «old Europe,» not the part which includes many new NATO members and future EU members. Rumsfeld was clearly playing with the fact that the former members of the eastern bloc are squarely in the pro-US camp – a declaration which caused something close to apoplexy in Paris and Berlin and on countless op-ed pages across Europe (including those of our humble paper). So, when Blair, Aznar et al weighed in with their letter, they were not operating in a vacuum. Even though they say they did not act as the EU, they are EU members and candidates, and they broke ranks with their partners and caught them by surprise. The German and French positions, on the other hand, had been expressed before Monday’s EU meeting and, in all likelihood, could have been expected to change after Powell’s presentation next Wednesday. Now, the eight had forced the others to take a stand, either to defend their previous position or to bow their heads and, for the sake of EU and transatlantic unity, metaphorically add their names to the letter of allegiance. «Today more than ever, the transatlantic bond is a guarantee of our freedom,» the letter states. «We in Europe have a relationship with the United States which has stood the test of time. Thanks in large part to American bravery, generosity and farsightedness, Europe was set free from the two forms of tyranny that devastated our continent in the 20th century: Nazism and Communism. Thanks, too, to the continued cooperation between Europe and the United States, we have managed to guarantee peace and freedom on our continent. The transatlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime’s persistent attempts to threaten world security.» Every government in Europe, if it is honest with itself and its people, can be expected to endorse such a statement. But the fact that is being lost in the outrage and self-flagellation is that the alliance of free countries around the United States for most of the past century has been just that, an alliance of the willing. This is probably the first time that European countries find themselves having to declare, over any reservations that they may have over Bush’s Iraqi campaign, their allegiance to the United States. How did we get to this? One explanation is that perhaps Blair and Aznar are the only European leaders to have realized that after September 11 the United States has understood itself to be in the thick of a war, for good or ill, while many European countries still look at war as something to be avoided at all costs. The second irony is the declaration that «the transatlantic relationship must not become a casualty of the current Iraqi regime.» Yet, if anything jeopardizes that most precious relationship, it is the forcing of governments’ hands. It may seem silly to suggest, in the real world of realpolitik, that one should humor countries that for some or other reason find it hard to agree that the case for war against Iraq is conclusive. But, if one does care about the strength of alliances over the long term, then the worst that one can do is spring faits accomplis upon them. Saddam has nothing to do with this. The Iraqi dictator’s sole contribution to this fracas is that, in the end, his existence and his fate are so much less important than the cohesion of the European Union and its alliance with the United States. And it is precisely because Saddam himself is not such a threat that we find ourselves facing the divisions that we do. The values that the United States and the Europeans share are indeed the same. In many fields, as in the death sentence, the Europeans are way ahead of the Americans in applying those values. Americans speak of values, but if they did not have the Europeans working with them and independently to clothe, feed and shelter needy populations across the globe, if they did not have the partner that is the EU, whether in dealing with economic issues or terrorism, America would not be what it believes it is. So, if Saddam gobbled up Kuwait, or Hitler demanded Czechoslovakia, or the Nazis had conquered all of Europe and were on their way to England, no one of today’s players would have had any objections to going to war. Until a few days ago, the issue was whether there was a case for war against Iraq. Suddenly, the letter of the «eight» has turned the focus on to whether the Europeans are with the United States or not. This can only be explained by a shocking lack of diplomatic skills among the key players. Of course, the transatlantic alliance is far more important than all of today’s protagonists. So the Europeans can be expected to align themselves with Washington. But this whole sorry episode could turn out to be of great benefit for three reasons. First, it will probably force the creation of a strong common front, which may avert war by convincing the Iraqi regime that it has no room to escape and so should cooperate with the international community. Second, it may give Blair the authority to convince Bush that rushing into war without building the broadest possible coalition would be foolish. And, most importantly, the EU’s latest misadventure could just make the leaders and the people of Europe realize that if they want to be masters of their fate they will have to stop deluding themselves that they already have a voice in the world. This is the time for the Europeans to decide how much power each country must cede so that, united at last, the European Union can become a serious, single player and each of its citizens can stand a little taller. That will guarantee the strongest possible transatlantic alliance.