February 24, 2005 | More from Don Murray
Don Murray is one of the most prolific of the CBC's foreign correspondents, filing hundreds of reports - in French and English - from China, Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union. He is currently based in London as the senior European correspondent for CBC Television News.
During his 30 years with CBC, Murray has covered a multitude of major stories, including the advent of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He wrote A Democracy of Despots, a book documenting that collapse and the rebirth of Russia. While in Berlin, he covered the peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia and, in London, covered the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. He authored Family Wars, a major feature article for the International Journal paralleling the troubles in Northern Ireland and the war in Bosnia. In recent years he has covered the wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The great motorcade swept through the streets of the city. This was Brussels, later it would be Mainz. The crowds … but there were no crowds. George W. Bush's imperial procession through Europe took place in a hermetically sealed environment.
In Brussels it was, at times, eery. The procession containing the great, armour-plated limousine (flown in from Washington) rolled through streets denuded of human beings except for riot police. Whole areas of the Belgian capital were sealed off before the American president passed.
Brussels is also the capital of Europe and Europe likes to see itself as a world power. But on this visit it was clear where the real power lay. The Americans demanded and the Belgians obeyed. They sealed sewer covers, they emptied trash cans and flower baskets along Bush's route.
In Germany, the atmosphere was even eerier. Police distributed leaflets to people living along the presidential route in Mainz. These suggested they should keep their windows shut and stay clear of balconies "to avoid misunderstandings."
Stores and restaurants in the so-called "red-zone" around Mainz's electoral palace, where Bush met German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, were advised to close for the day. Those that stayed open discovered they had no customers. Driving and parking in the area were forbidden. Garages were closed, mailboxes searched and sealed. No one was allowed into the zone.
Meanwhile, back in Frankfurt, passengers and Germany's national airline, Lufthansa, were fuming. At the Americans' insistence, the Frankfurt airport was closed when Bush's plane, Air Force One, flew in. The closure was supposed to last half an hour. It stretched to more than one hour.
The company had to cancel 77 flights, affecting 5,000 passengers. It's now investigating whether it can sue German federal agencies who ordered the closure.
Bush said he had come to Europe to listen. But a scheduled town-hall meeting in Mainz was dropped. Bush's advisers were told some of the participants might be "hostile." Instead an innocuous meeting with "young" business leaders was scheduled in its place.
Bush began his "listening" tour in Brussels with a speech in which Europeans listened to him. He told them his country was in favour of a strong Europe. He told them no "passing quarrel" (read Iraq) could weaken the trans-Atlantic alliance. He told them democracy has to be strengthened - in the Middle East and in Russia. They applauded politely.
American reporters were a little puzzled. The speech was full of lines that had members of Congress leaping to their feet just a few weeks earlier. Why the lack of enthusiasm? An American official explained that, well, Europeans were like that careful, reserved when it came to political speeches.
Dinners are different. There was great enthusiasm on the part of French president Jacques Chirac about dinner with Bush. Since Bush was a guest in Europe Chirac wanted to invite him. But there are guests and guests. Chirac ended up going to the American Embassy in Brussels for an early repast with Bush as his host. The two presidents even ate something they've taken to calling "freedom fries" in Washington.
But on this evening, Bush pointedly called them "french fries." Voilà! A trans-Atlantic quarrel over the war in Iraq buried, or rather swallowed, with a plate of fries.
In a curious way the European Union is like the Soviet Union 20 years ago - a great power, but only in one area, and quite unsure of itself on the international stage. The Soviet Union was a military giant and an economic midget; the European Union is exactly the reverse. But each has sought in summits with the one unchallengeable superpower the reassurance of reflected greatness.
The American president and his advisers judged with consummate skill that wish to be called great by the great. Having offered flattering words about Europe in his speech, he then travelled through empty streets the next day to the headquarters of the European Union - the first time an American president had made such a pilgrimage.
He was greeted by the prime minister of Luxembourg, which is no bigger than a suburb of New York. In the arcane European Union system, it was Luxembourg's turn to assume the six-month rotating presidency.
All 25 European leaders had showed up to be seen with Bush. But the president has a notoriously short attention span. There was no way that all 25 would be allowed to address him in their meeting. Only 10 would speak.
Behind the scenes the European leaders fought like debutantes at a society ball trying to fill their dance cards. The man presiding over this was the Luxembourg leader. His verdict: "If ridicule could kill, there would be bodies piling up in the streets of Brussels."
The meeting of Europe and America only served to underline the power of America and its monarch. The greatest imperial monarch of the pre-industrial age articulated the goal of such encounters with Gallic precision 327 years ago. "S'agrandir," wrote Louis XIV, "est la plus digne et la plus agréable occupation des souverains." Self-aggrandizement is the most worthy and agreeable occupation of sovereigns.
To self-aggrandize, of course, someone else must be humbled.
Enter Canada's Paul Martin. He, too, was in Brussels, attending the NATO summit along with Bush and other NATO leaders. He, too, wanted to visit the European Union headquarters. Unfortunately for him, the time chosen was just before George Bush himself was due to arrive.
The Canadian camera waited to record for posterity Martin's arrival at the grand entrance to the EU headquarters. He never appeared.
We discovered later his car had been rerouted to the garage under the headquarters building. From there he was quickly hustled upstairs for a quick photo-op with the president of the EU commission. And then, out the door, while the Europeans prepared for a grander visitor. He would be greeted at the main door.
Let us now pause to remember Louis XIV and the most worthy and agreeable occupation of sovereigns.