With Moore, Against Bush

It is hard to imagine the Europeans giving in to Bush at a time when he is mired in the Iraqi mud. And especially not now, on the eve of the presidential elections. They will prefer to identify with Michael Moore.

The French daily Liberation described the decision to give the Palme d'Or award at the 57th Cannes Film Festival to "Fahrenheit 9/11," a documentary film by director Michael Moore, as "Kill Bush 2." From the heart of "Old Europe," the members of the jury declared war on the "Texan Cowboy," the most hated man on the continent. The prize that Moore received for his "anti-Bush" film is like a subtle Hollywood poison designed to kill the American president slowly, on the eve of his bid to stay in the White House.

The atmosphere at Cannes was not unusual. Every time that pundits discuss the trans-Atlantic rift, the same troubling disputes raise their heads: the Kyoto Protocol on the environment, the International Criminal Court, the ABM missile treaty, the role of the European Union in America's new world order, and of course, the conflict in Iraq. The Greater Middle East initiative furthered by the United States, which will be discussed at three major international forums in the coming month - the G-8 meeting, the NATO summit and the Euro-America summit - may be the next trans-Atlantic dispute.

In discussions on the American initiative - whose crux is the imposition of reforms and democracy - a visitor to European Union institutions in Brussels finds himself greeted by a mixture of rage and disdain, combined with exasperation. The European complaints focus on four issues:

1. The scope of the initiative: The Americans are proposing reforms in an area stretching from Mauritania in the west to Pakistan in the east. The Europeans view the idea of placing "all the enemies of reforms [and those] that threaten American security" into one basket as "megalomania that stems from ignorance and paternalism that could be disastrous." They are calling for the implementation of a more limited plan that will encompass a more homogeneous area and include a differential element that allows each country to be examined separately, according to the pace of its progress.

2. "Plagiarism": "The wheel was not invented in Washington," the Europeans complain. "As early as 1995, we established a framework called the `Barcelona Process' in which European Union members and Mediterranean basin countries participated. We invested billions of euros in this framework, which aimed at stabilizing the Mediterranean Sea area through economic development and modernization. `Barcelona' is genuine reform. There is no logic in duplicating existing frameworks through rash policy improvisations."

3. Imposed reforms: The Americans are keen to emphasize the stick, while the Europeans stress the carrot. "The `American diktat' only causes antagonism. It has no chance," they say in Brussels. "On the other hand, the pragmatism of the `Barcelona Process' has already proven itself. The recent openness expressed by Morocco and Jordan is an example of the impact of our activity. Reforms? Democratization? Yes, but the kind that will emerge from within, whose pace will be measured and which will not undermine the Arab regimes. These [regimes] need to feel that they own the process, and not be dragged into it by external coercion."

4. The "linkage": Chris Patten, the EU's external relations commissioner, this week listed four issues that are causing tension in relations between the Arab world and the West: reforms, the crisis in Iraq, Turkey's bid to enter the European Union and, above all else, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Europeans demanded that the reform plan be conditioned on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which it regards as a supreme goal. The United States turned them down. The Europeans retreated, but they will not give up on a compromise calling for two parallel tracks that will be advanced simultaneously.

Pessimists among the pundits would point to the potential for major clashes in every one of these issues. Optimists would point out that the Americans have recently changed the title of their initiative from the "Greater Middle East" to the "Partnership for Progress and Common Future for the Broader Middle East and North Africa." They regard the new name, with its extreme vagueness, as evidence of American flexibility.

In the end, it seems likely that the U.S. and Europe will manage to formulate a common declaration, even if only one based on the narrowest of common denominators. As for implementation, it seems that each will operate in its own way, through its own means. It is hard to imagine the Europeans giving in to Bush at a time when he is mired in the Iraqi mud. And especially not now, on the eve of the presidential elections. They will prefer to identify with Michael Moore.