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U.S.: Anti-War Sentiment Heats Up In Europe

  • Kathleen Moore

Anti-American protests have become a familiar sight in many Muslim countries since the United States and Britain launched air strikes against Taliban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan on 7 October. But there are also pockets of opposition to the campaign within some of the countries that support the military action. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox reports on Europe's burgeoning anti-war movement.

Prague, 9 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "We must turn round and say, 'No to the war! No to the war! No to Bush's war! No to Blair's war!'"

That was an anti-war protester on London's Trafalgar Square last night, addressing a crowd of demonstrators in front of a British flag emblazoned with the word "terrorists."

The crowd, many of them carrying posters reading "No to War," were protesting against British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to take part in the U.S.-led bombing of targets in Afghanistan.

Similar protests were held yesterday in other British cities and more are planned for the weekend, when Muslim groups and trade unions are to join demonstrations organized by the so-called "Stop The War Coalition."

Britain more than any other European country has been at the forefront of the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Taliban and terrorist targets.

But there have been grumbles about the raids elsewhere in Europe.

In Rome and other Italian cities, protesters from left-wing groups and student movements marched to denounce the attacks.

And in Greece, some 2,000 anti-globalization activists and leftists marched on the U.S. embassy in Athens, burning American and European Union flags and denouncing U.S. President George W. Bush as a terrorist.

But so far, analysts say, opposition to the war has been fairly small-scale. Heather Grabbe works at the London-based Center for European Reform.

"In Britain people are very quiescent about it. The people who have been opposed -- or who have at least been visible in the media in their opposition to it -- have tended to be those who are arguing that aid, rather than bombs, is the way to deal with this issue. For example, the Islamic society has been arguing that. Also, of course, what remains of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and others who are opposed to war of any kind have been campaigning. But actually the numbers are quite small. It's remarkable how little complaint there's been of any kind when Britain has been at the forefront of this and is being a key ally to the U.S."

Grabbe says there was also little opposition in Britain in 1999 during the Kosovo war, which she says was perceived as a "humanitarian war" -- one that was intended to alleviate the suffering of certain people, in that case ethnic Albanians.

"This [campaign in Afghanistan] is clearly not a humanitarian war. And for that reason I think people do feel more ambivalent about it, not just because of the principles of whether or not bombing Afghanistan is really the way to solve problems of international terror. I think there's an enormous fear that Britain might be the next target [following the 11 September suicide attacks on the U.S.]."

Political parties across the spectrum in Britain have backed the governing Labour Party in its stance. This leaves it up to various individual members of parliament to voice any opposition.

But in some other European countries, governments include politicians from normally pacifist parties.

One is France, which has promised military assistance -- probably involving special forces -- to the campaign.

Noel Mamere -- who may become the Green Party's presidential candidate -- called the raids "an act of war on the Afghan people" and said the French are "powerless spectators at a U.S. response which wants the guarantee of a coalition to let it do what it wants."

And Green Party leader Dominique Voynet said that "the Greens are at one on this affair."

Greens are also in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's governing coalition in Germany. The Greens approved the military action in a statement yesterday. But individual members are queasy about dropping bombs on Afghanistan. So could this be a worry for Schroeder?

RFE/RL posed this question to Wichard Woyke, a political scientist at Muenster University.

He says the controversy puts Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer -- a Green -- in an uncomfortable position. But Woyke adds that the Greens have their eye on federal elections just one year away.

"The Greens have no other chance but to support the chancellor and to support the attacks of the U.S. on Afghanistan, because they are in power, they want to stay in power, and if they want to be reelected they must stay in power until the next elections."

Woyke says Schroeder holds the trump card:

"Of course this could make some problems for the government, for the coalition, [but] there are options for Mr. Schroeder. He has the option to make a coalition with the liberals and he has the option to make a [broad] coalition, and he has the option to make a coalition in a theoretical way with the [former Communists] PDS -- but as they are attacking the American actions, this is theoretical. The fact that Mr. Schroeder has this option with the [Free Democrats] FDP, the liberals, means that he has the chance to [put] pressure on the Greens to stay in the coalition."

Woyke notes that the Greens already approved Germany's participation in another war -- in Kosovo two years ago.

And he says that public opinion seems to be mainly behind the U.S.-led action:

"In Muenster, a university city in the northwest part of Germany, yesterday there were 50 people demonstrating against American raids and it was mentioned in the local radio and the press. But what's 50 people in a population of 270,000?"

Grabbe says that opposition to the war could spread in Britain if the campaign drags on:

"A lot depends on how this particular strike [campaign] in Afghanistan goes. If it creates many more refugees, if it causes civilian casualties, and particularly if it's seen to be unsuccessful in reaching [suspected terrorist] Osama bin Laden or other targets, then I think opposition will grow quite quickly. Because people are concerned that we shouldn't be involved in military campaigns that have got an uncertain future and no obvious outcome and [where] there's no obvious exit strategy from them either, so I think that will cause a lot more disquiet."

But for now, she says, Prime Minister Tony Blair's approval rating is high.

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