'New Europe's' Iraq squeeze

Frantic jockeying at the UN over possible war with Iraq puts Poland and other Eastern European nations in a tough spot.

It's not easy being a "New European." That label is causing particular discomfort in Poland, which is caught in the middle of an increasingly ill-tempered transAtlantic argument about the merits of an imminent war in Iraq.

Ever since US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld praised Eastern and Central European sympathizers as "New Europe," and French President Jacques Chirac scolded them as "childish," Warsaw has found itself in an unexpected spotlight, being asked to make a difficult choice.

That choice has become even more agonizing as the rift over Iraq deepens at the United Nations. Russia warned Monday that it would vote against a UN ultimatum - which could come as soon as Tuesday - to give Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein a March 17 deadline to disarm. British officials said Monday they would listen to proposals to move the deadline, but stressed the need for a "tight deadline."

Meanwhile, the Iraq question, has confronted Poland with a choice it is reluctant to make. "It's not either/or; it's both," says Tadeusz Iwinski, foreign-policy adviser to premier Leszek Miller. "We don't see the need to choose between Europe and the United States. That's like having to choose between your mother and your father."

That, perhaps, is the sort of choice that comes with national adulthood. And this is a status of which Poland is intensely proud as it emerges as a Central European lynchpin after 50 years of Soviet domination and centuries of tortured history as a pawn of neighboring great powers.

Accepted into the European Union last December (formal membership is due next year) and a NATO member for the past three years, Poland is finding its voice on the international stage. "We have much more self-confidence now," says Adam Rotfeld, deputy Foreign Minister. "EU membership means we will be in a group of stabilized, predictable states."

"Poland is one of the important states in Europe and it sees itself as regaining its status as a player," says a senior Western diplomat here. With 40 million citizens, Poland's population and economy alone make up half the weight of all 10 EU applicant countries joining next year. "Warsaw sees itself as having the right to play a role commensurate with its size," the diplomat adds.

That role comes at a price, however, as Poland has discovered since January, when Mr. Miller signed a letter from eight European nations that defied French and German pretensions to speak for the whole continent, and expressed understanding for the US position on Iraq.

Poland's defiance of "old Europe" drew particular attention in Western European capitals since it followed a Polish decision to modernize its air force with US-made F-16 jet fighters, rather than with European-manufactured rivals. A furious Mr. Chirac accused Central and Eastern European nations that had spoken up of having "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," and went so far as to make veiled threats about their chances of joining the EU. European Union enlargement - which is not universally popular among EU citizens - must be ratified by all 15 existing members in parliamentary votes or plebiscites.

While no one is likely to make good on such a threat, its perceived arrogance played into the hands of EU opponents in Poland, a deeply pro-American country where a referendum on EU membership is scheduled for June.

The prospect of cloudy relations with Germany and France is worrying, officials here say, in an uncertain international situation where old truisms are irrelevant. "For the first time, we are confronted by a new type of dilemma," says Mr. Rotfeld. "For centuries, our main dilemma was whether to be with Russia against Germany, or with Germany against Russia. Now we are confronted with a new one - to be with the US against Europe, or with Europe against America. But that is a false dilemma."

"Only America and NATO can give us external security," adds Bogdan Goralzyk, an adviser to foreign minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz. "But even more pressing is domestic security, which means modernization, and nobody but the EU can give us that."

Poland does 70 percent of its foreign trade with EU countries. That is unlikely to change however political relations develop. But the international crisis over Iraq, which has opened splits across the Atlantic and within Europe, has shown how much harder the EU will find it to achieve one of its cherished goals - a common foreign and security policy - when it contains 25 members with varying backgrounds and views.

Already the EU is split over how to deal with Saddam Hussein between countries that put a high priority on good relations with Washington, such as Britain and Spain, and others more committed to developing a distinctly European outlook. In Paris and Berlin, officials fear that the arrival in the EU of Central European countries like Poland, who bear a sense of gratitude to Washington for its role in destroying the Soviet Union, might make it even easier for the US to divide Europe in a future crisis, "cherry picking" its allies.

"There will be no common foreign and security policy among 25 members," predicts Janusz Reiter, a former Polish ambassador to Germany, who now heads the Center for International Relations, a Warsaw think tank. "There will be enhanced cooperation among a group of willing and able countries. The question is whether Poland will be willing and able. I hope it will be," he continues. "Poland needs a deeply integrated EU, because when it disintegrates, like now, national egoisms get stronger, and Poland is not good at that game compared to major powers like France and Germany. But we cannot rely on only one partner in this world. Look at the map: We are in Central Europe."

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