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EU: 'Chirac Attack' Carries Potential Risks

EU candidate countries reacted angrily yesterday after French President Jacques Chirac criticized them for siding with the United States in the dispute over Iraq. Chirac used words like "childish," "frivolous," and "dangerous" to describe their pro-U.S. stance and hinted that it could harm their chances of joining the European Union. But what consequences, if any, will the row itself have?

Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The analogies have come thick and fast to describe French President Jacques Chirac's outburst this week against the EU candidates in Central and Eastern Europe. Chirac was like "a bull in a china shop," inflicting damage all around, said an editorial in "The Wall Street Journal." The Czech daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" said any damage done was self-inflicted: "He shot himself in the foot."

Some Czechs and Slovaks with long memories were reminded of the 1938 Munich agreement, when France, along with Britain, let Nazi Germany grab chunks of Czechoslovakia. "We were told to shut up and keep in line then, too," they said.

Another typical candidate-country reaction came yesterday from Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski. "The same way there should be no words spoken on the division of Europe into 'old' and 'new,' there should be no lessons given on good manners or irresponsibility, because this is, unfortunately, like adding oil to fire," Szmajdzinski said.

The row has certainly sparked some angry responses in the short term. But will the damage be long-lasting?

Observers say Chirac's tirade could take a toll in several ways. It could undermine support for EU entry in candidate countries, just as they are about to hold referenda. It could also help turn current members against the newcomers, or at least make them more reluctant to give them money. That's important because accession treaties must be ratified by parliament or referendum in some EU member countries. The dispute could also heighten fears in candidate countries that their voices won't be heard once they join.

Bernhard Wessels is a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin. Imagine, he said, being an ordinary citizen in a candidate country and hearing Chirac's outburst -- it's bound to make you think twice about voting "yes" in a referendum on EU entry. "[Imagine] you are a small country and -- compared to the existing member countries -- a poor country. And you won't have a say [in important matters] as you wanted to have. And even if you have a formal say, [they] are pressing you with arguments like you won't get accession or money and so on. People, of course, have to think twice about [voting 'yes' to joining the EU]," Wessels said.

He said there is a real threat to enlargement if public opinion in member countries turns more hostile. But Wessels said Chirac himself is fanning those flames. "It always depends on how the respective political leaders in the countries behave," he said. "If [Chirac] would hold on to his arguments and tell the French people that it's not a good idea to let these countries in, then, of course, this affects public opinion. If the leaders don't support it, why should the citizens?" Wessels said.

Jakub Boratynski, a European expert at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, said Poles' votes are more likely to be influenced by issues like entry conditions than by harsh remarks from leaders like Chirac. "It would, though, be very dangerous if this kind of statement [like Chirac's had come] much closer to the date of the referendum. Let's imagine we had the referendum a few days from now -- it would be a very bad message. Especially then, of course, anti-European forces [would] exploit it, certainly," Boratynski said.

But both Boratynski and Wessels said they believe that in the end, Chirac did the most damage to himself. His behavior, Boratynski said, was "outrageous."