Europeans Who Sat Out the Iraq War Now Line Up for Its Business

Europeans Who Sat Out the Iraq War Now Line Up for Its Business

“Old Europe” famously declined to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But six years on, countries such as France and Germany are eager to get in on the cleanup process in Iraq — and the hundreds of billions of dollars in business that effort is expected to generate.

The most recent European move to woo Iraq came this week when German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a surprise visit to Baghdad. In addition to discussing diplomatic issues, Steinmeier made it clear that restoring the bustling business that Germany Inc. was doing in Iraq before the war is a key priority for Berlin. “Germany wants to assist Iraq in reconstruction,” declared Steinmeier, who was accompanied by a delegation of German business leaders. “My visit demonstrates that we want to support this new Iraq on the path of democratic consolidation.”

While stability in Iraq is still shaky, Germany wants to make sure it gets a piece of the reconstruction pie early. As Steinmeier made the rounds in Baghdad during his
unannounced trip, German Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was back in Berlin touting the initiative as seeking to “contribute to reviving the once intensive economic relations between Germany and Iraq.”

The German Foreign Minister’s trip to Iraq came just a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Baghdad. “My coming here is to tell French companies: the time has come. Come and invest!” Sarkozy declared, explaining to his host, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, how French investment would be mutually beneficial. “We seek cooperation in the economic field, energy, rebuilding, and to help the police, security and Iraqi military forces, as well as restoring the international position of Iraq,” Sarkozy promised. “We want to encourage all European countries to come. It is in Europe’s interest to extend a hand here and to support the peace.”

European firms don’t exactly need Sarkozy’s invitation to get to know Iraqi officials. Earlier this year, France’s Total and the Anglo-Dutch firm Royal Dutch Shell began talks with Iraqi authorities about developing five new oil fields in the north and south of the country. European chemical, engineering and construction companies and arms producers would also like to re-establish ties that were severed by the international embargo of Iraq before the war. British and Italian firms, meanwhile, long to kick-start contracts they had from 2003 to 2004, when an explosion of insurgent violence forced most of them to abandon the country.

Westerners are not the only ones eyeing Iraq. Last March, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian leader to visit Baghdad. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is also expected to travel to Iraq soon, to renew once strong economic and commercial ties between the two countries.

But it’s Europe’s capitals that are leading the way for now. Will Washington appreciate the help or view it as an attempt at business gain from American military pain “They don’t have any choice, because the business world doesn’t quibble with concerns of woulds, shoulds or oughts, but rather who gets the signature on the contract first,” says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a senior fellow on international relations at the French Institute on Foreign Relations in Paris. “Tragically for America, meanwhile, now that stability and order is starting to be imposed, the Iraqi leadership is increasingly defining and evolving itself in opposition to what the U.S. wants or demands. That’s unfair, given the military sacrifice America has made, but
it will be a boon to European diplomats and businesspeople over time.”

That reality was on show during the French President’s Iraq visit. Maliki used Sarkozy’s presence and words of support to respond to comments by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that Washington would be “more aggressive” in demanding political reform from Baghdad. Delivered as Biden left for an international security summit in Munich, the sentiment apparently annoyed the Iraqi Prime Minister. “The time for putting pressure on Iraq is over,” Maliki said during a Baghdad
press conference with Sarkozy. That must be music to Old Europe’s ears.

See pictures of Iraq’s revival.

Read a TIME story on rebuilding Basra.