Prague, 8 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Press commentary today focuses in large part on the Group of Eight (G-8) summit of industrialized countries beginning today in the U.S. state of Georgia. While some observers hold out the hope that the meeting will herald new initiatives on issues of common interest, others dismiss the gathering as pure bureaucratic pageantry. Other pundits today discuss the limitations of EU governing bodies in forging a continent-wide identity and Israel's controversial plan to disengage from Gaza in exchange for leaving some settlements in the West Bank.
THE WASHINGTON POST
Several items today discuss the G-8 summit meeting on Sea Island, Georgia. One editorial looks back at Russia's first invitation to join the summit in 1996, extended by then U.S. President Bill Clinton to his counterpart, Boris Yeltsin. At that time it was hoped that the inclusion of Russia would help it integrate with international institutions and move it in the direction of the West, away from some Communist Party members who risked leading Russia "backward into Soviet-style authoritarianism."
But today, it is Yeltsin's successor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now looks set to lead Russia "backward" and reinstate a brand of Soviet-style autocracy. Putin "has wielded the levers of state power -- police, prosecutors, pliable judges -- to sap the independence of the media, the business establishment and the political opposition," says the paper. Recently, Putin delivered "ominous threats" to independent nongovernmental organizations in Russia and encouraged the Duma to restrict public demonstrations.
So as G-8 leaders meet today, the paper says, it might be time to reconsider why Putin "continues to receive a no-questions-asked invitation." Russia is a big country, "but the Netherlands' GDP per capita is three times larger, China's military is more important, and India's population is bigger." The paper says if the idea was to encourage Russia's democratization by making it a member of the club, "this 10th anniversary might be a good moment for the other members of the club to take stock."
An editorial in the London-based daily calls the annual G-8 meeting "dispensable." Over 29 years of summits, the group "has lost most of its focus. What was conceived as an opportunity for leaders of the world's richest countries to exchange views informally and in private, largely on international economic issues, has escalated into just another international jamboree." Efforts at reforming the gatherings by making them more exclusive or less formal have failed, it adds.
"The Independent" says the addition of Russia, "first informally and latterly as a full member, diluted the economic content of the talks. Russia may be a powerful country; it is not a rich one." If Russia can take part, why not China? the paper asks. And if the European Union can take part as a conglomerate member, why not other regional alliances?
The result has been an annual gathering "in which form has largely taken over from content," the paper says. Each country tables an agenda that suits its interests, and each year the formal agenda "inevitably yields to the events of the day." The dominating issue this week will be the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq -- and yet the subject appears nowhere on the summit agenda.
"The Independent" says "[it] is time to abandon the G-8 as a forum and replace it with single-issue summits bringing together the leaders who are truly interested and dedicated to the subject in hand." This would be a more effective use of time "than the spectacle about to play out at Sea Island."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
Columnist Mark Steyn seeks to expose some of the limits of the European Union in an item featured today. He says European Commission head Valery Giscard d'Estaing and other EU officials "seem to think that, if you have a commission and a council and a parliament and a president and a foreign minister and a common defense policy and a public prosecutor and a citizenship and a flag and an anthem and banknotes and a continent-wide minimum wage, then you have the bones and internal organs of nationhood and you can put flesh on them later."
But proceeding in this fashion is backwards, says Steyn. These things are "just the outward symbols." And without the deeper shared ties, such symbols "are as meaningless for the European Union as they were for Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union."
The European Constitution, for its part, is decidedly unconstitutional, he says. It does not simply lay out in brief the limitations of government and the inalienability of human rights but is "full of stuff about European space policy, water resources, free expression for children, the right to housing assistance, preventive action on the environment, etc." These issues "may well be worthy planks in a political platform, but they're not constitutional matters," he says.
"The European Constitution attempts to supplant genuine national identities with an ersatz bureaucratic identity -- a government identity, from which a new national identity will follow." But in practice, the constitution is "an accumulation of fluffy trivialities that nevertheless takes for granted that the natural order is a world in which every itsy-bitsy activity is licensed and regulated and constitutionally defined by government."
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH
An editorial calls Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from Gaza while leaving settlements in the West Bank "a bold plan for breaking the Israeli-Palestinian logjam." U.S. President George W. Bush has indicated his support for the plan and, "[after] initial hostility, Egypt and Jordan have come to accept it. To moderate Palestinians, it offers an opportunity to sideline Hamas and show that they are capable of running a responsible state."
But even more importantly, opinion polls indicate that the Israeli public is willing to give up the Gaza settlements. The paper says, "With the road map in tatters because of Yasser Arafat's unwillingness to confront the suicide bombers, the prime minister is offering an alternative way forward." Sharon now "deserves the support of his coalition, parliament, his neighbors and Israel's friends in the wider world."
Sharon's "historic policy shift runs formidable risks," says the paper. "[He] is to be congratulated for persevering with it against the odds."
THE IRISH TIMES
An editorial in the Dublin daily says the Israeli cabinet's decision on 6 June to approve a withdrawal from Gaza has been touted as a reaffirmation of "Israel's willingness to find peace if the Palestinians renounce violent resistance." But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's critics say it has always suited Israel to withdraw from Gaza in exchange for consolidating its hold on the West Bank, "where 240,000 settlers live among nearly two million Palestinians." And there is "little room for compromise between these two accounts of what is at stake in the Israeli Cabinet's decision."
The paper says the "cantonization" of the West Bank under Israeli control "will undermine any basis for a viable peace agreement." Sharon's more scathing critics say his plan undermines the peace process or the chance of establishing a viable Palestinian state by 2005, as laid out in the "road map."
As Sharon holds on to a razor-thin majority supporting his plan, "The Irish Times" says the likely beneficiaries of any future political impasse "will be fundamentalist opponents of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, together with leaderships of Middle Eastern states who oppose the [U.S.] administration's plan for democratizing the region." The paper says if European states are interested in helping restore the road map, "they will need to make this clear to [U.S. President George W.] Bush at this week's G-8 summit in Georgia."
As leaders from the world's seven leading industrialized countries plus Russia gather for their summit, Britain's "The Guardian" says the meeting's U.S. host "brings to the negotiating table a number of pressing concerns of its own, principally the question of Iraq's outstanding $120 billion foreign debt and the promotion of secular institutions in the Arab world." But the paper says the G-8's most immediate issue should be that of extending the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, or HIPC, which relieves the foreign debt of the world's 42 least-developed countries. "While there is little doubt that HIPC will be extended, the level of funding it receives is crucial," says the paper.
"At the previous two G-8 summits, the U.S. has ensured the agenda is dominated by security issues related to its 'war on terror,' most notably a series of micro-proposals that include a G-8-wide plan to share information on airport screening, stolen passports and suspected terrorists." The "Guardian" says the "pessimistic view is that little will be achieved" this time around either, as "attention remains focused on the Middle East and security, and otherwise distracted by November's U.S. elections."
But the G-8 needs "a successful summit soon," the paper says. "Barely half of the 2003 Evian summit's agreed proposals have been successfully implemented by member states, while another barren year or two would call into question the point of the G-8." The paper suggests that "concrete achievements" and a revised membership list are needed to preserve the viability of the G-8 as a forum.
In a contribution to the London-based "The Times," Stephen Pollard of the Centre for the New Europe says the June elections to the European Parliament "are, in theory, about the direction of the EU." But the debate has centered more around celebrity endorsements than it has about the issues, he says.
There is "a pressing issue which goes to the very heart of the European Union: economically, it is failing [across] the EU as a whole." And instead of "concentrating on what matters -- ensuring that member states' economies are as competitive as possible -- EU leaders have insisted on constitutional reforms dressed up as economic reforms, such as the euro."
Pollard says that, according to the Swedish think tank Timbro, "not only is the EU's GDP per capita lower than in most of the poorest U.S. states, but even the most prosperous EU countries -- France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany -- have lower GDP per capita than all but four U.S. states." Even when annual U.S. growth fell to 1-2 percent, "it was still higher than the average growth rate in most EU countries over recent decades."
He writes: "If economies are not efficient, then resources are not properly deployed and do not expand as they could." Companies are challenged by regulations and "lose business, cannot afford to operate and close. Workers lose their jobs, reducing the tax base and thus the revenue with which to pay for public services."
And it is about time the EU and its citizens have "a sensible debate about how we are going to deal with this mess."
An open letter from artists and cultural figures from across the European Union calls for urgent action to be taken to address the widening gap between the world's rich and poor. Published in France's "Le Monde," the letter says hundreds of millions of people are living in intolerable conditions and amid great inequality, while the ecological future of the planet remains uncertain and the rising tide of terrorism and increases in violence are heightening insecurity. As Europeans head to the polls this week to elect members of parliament, the writers say the EU still considers itself essentially an economic union while it should consider itself a project founded on a common heritage.
European citizens are the heirs to a long cultural legacy, from Bach to Virgil, that has established a common past and which has contributed to the development of common values, the letter continues. For centuries, artistic and cultural exchanges have surpassed national borders and made it possible to overcome divisions and heal the wounds caused by past conflicts.
Today, this heritage must be passed on to future generations, the letter adds. Democracy does not exist only at the level of institutions, and it dies if not regenerated by the spirit, by art and research. If the vision of a European market eventually overcomes the European political and cultural project, it could give rise to a confrontation between forces seeking Europe-wide integration and those of simple materialism.
The authors call on the heads of state of the 25 EU member nations to view the economic goals of Europe as a means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves. They call for "political goodwill," and ask artists also to play an active role in creating a common European cultural identity. Establishing culture as the main unifying force of Europe, they say, is an obligation both "moral and historic."