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EU: Allies In Step With U.S. On Terrorism, But Risks Remain

The United States' European allies appear to be moving with unprecedented unity to support Washington in the struggle against international terrorism. But countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic often have different ways of viewing world problems. Are the Europeans and Americans going to be able to stay in step, or are differences likely to surface about the eradication of terror?

Prague, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- There is now a high degree of harmony between the United States and its European allies as the campaign to strike back at international terrorism gains momentum.

European Union heads of state and government strengthened their solidarity with Washington by formally pledging at a summit on 21 September to help the United States combat extremists, their sponsors, and financiers. They also adopted a plan to fight terrorism on the soil of European Union nations. Those European states in NATO previously pledged military help to the United States, if needed.

In addition, top EU officials -- led by European Commission President Romano Prodi -- visit Washington today to explain their plans to fight terrorism to President George W. Bush. And senior EU delegations are active in the Muslim world in support of U.S.-led efforts to build an international coalition against terrorists. Officials from Brussels, for instance, have visited both Tehran and Islamabad.

Steven Everts, an analyst with the Center for European Reform in London, sums up the picture:

"At the moment, I think the Europeans are utterly united, and the message that came through [on 21 September] was a strong message of support. It firmed up earlier declarations of support and gave a strong signal to the United States and the rest of the world that the EU is as concerned as the Americans are about the rising threat of global terrorism."

The 11 September terrorist attacks in New York and Washington appear to have produced a transatlantic solidarity following a period of rising tensions between the U.S. and the EU, the world's two biggest trading blocs. Those tensions were grounded mostly in trade issues but also spilled over to social matters. As Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center for the Study of the United States, puts it:

"Relations between Europe and the U.S. are always better when we are facing a common threat than when we are not, inevitably, because that creates a common purpose. In a sense, it puts into perspective all the problems that we were raising before -- trade, the death penalty, et cetera. They are still there, but they are looming less widely because more important issues, or more immediate issues, are taking the forefront."

Another senior analyst, Nicholas Whyte of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, sees the Europeans' prompt expressions of support for the United States as winning them influence with the Bush administration, which had been seen as aloof.

"It's clear there is a big policy debate going on in Washington, and, of course, the strongest voices in that debate are the Washington voices. But it is quite clear to me that the immediate sympathetic reaction of solidarity from the EU has given the EU a much stronger voice, a much stronger right to be heard, as it were, inside the American policy debate than it would have had a month ago."

But the analysts point out that this situation is a brittle one. After initial expressions of solidarity, some of the European allies qualified their support, expressing concern about how the United States plans to respond to the terror attacks. And those concerns have not dissipated, according to the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, Alexander Smolar.

"It's relatively easy to achieve a consensus in a country like the U.S. today, and an international consensus during a very short period of tension. But the problem of terrorism cannot be handled in a short time, and we can see disillusionment, differing analyses, fears appearing if the [military] operation in Afghanistan is extremely difficult. We do not know the shape of this operation, but it appears to be inevitable. So we can see critiques, differing analyses and differing proposals [emerging]."

As analyst Whyte puts it, much will depend on how the expected strike on Afghanistan turns out and whether bloodshed among civilians can be avoided.

"As well as sympathy for the American people, I think in Europe there is also sympathy for the Afghan people -- not the government, but the people -- who have been stuck in a dreadful mess of a civil war, which has gone on for 20 years and more. So a lot depends on what the military strike looks like and what the pictures on CNN look like."

Too many civilian casualties, he says, will undermine the European alliance. Some 6,500 civilians died in the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism has the difficult task of punishing terrorists while doing everything it can to avoid civilian loss of life.