Prague, 14 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators are focusing on today's European Union's meetings on enlargement and internal reforms as well as on last week's Afghan hostage crisis.
FINANCIAL TIMES: Europe is on the threshold of an historic transformation
In Britain's Financial Times, Tony Blair and Milos Zeman argue that Europe is on the threshold of an historic transformation. In a joint commentary, the British and Czech prime ministers write that the EU's expansion to 10 Central and East European nations will help end Europe's Cold-War division and bolster stability, free markets and democracy across the continent.
The two leaders say that EU enlargement will continue to make Europe a safer place, bring more economic opportunities to EU member-states and applicant countries, protect the environment, strengthen the continent's defenses, and help to resolve problems of immigration and asylum.
Blair and Zeman also say that unifying the European continent will not compromise the diversity of its individual countries. They write: "A single market has not undermined the national or regional identities of different parts of the EU. Quite the contrary, travelling through Europe we can see its diversity and the preservation and enhancement of local cultures and customs."
The two leaders cite the expanding relations between the Czech Republic and Britain as a positive example for the future of EU enlargement. They say that Czech and British citizens today are working together on a "scale unimaginable a few years ago." Blair and Zeman mention the military cooperation between the two countries in the Balkans, and common plans to protect the environment, fight organized crime and boost bilateral trade as evidence of the benefits of enlargement.
FINANCIAL TIMES: EU's Inter-Governmental Conference must find a balance
In an editorial, the Financial Times discusses today's launching of the EU's Inter-Governmental Conference (ICG) on internal reforms in Brussels. The paper says that the IGC must produce the necessary reforms if enlargement is to move forward. It argues that the conference must find a way to strike a balance between being too ambitious and too reserved on its agenda.
To find this balance, the FT believes, the EU must not lose sight of three essential objectives -- to enable enlargement to move forward without undue delay, to make the EU more effective, and to make the organization relevant to its ordinary citizens. The editorial also says that two items on the conference agenda -- controlling the growth of EU institutions and recalculating the votes of big and small states in an enlarged EU -- will not be difficult to resolve.
The FT believes that institutions like the EU's Executive Commission should be kept to a maximum of some 20 commissioners. This means that smaller EU member states would share commissioners, while larger ones would give up the second commissioners they have today. In exchange for giving up second commissioners, larger member states would be given more votes in the majority-voting system, thereby eliminating the possibility of being outvoted by alliances of smaller members.
The paper says the most difficult task facing the ICG is whether to legislate more flexibility in the EU. This would mean allowing some member states to press ahead with closer integration, even if others do no want to follow. Those in favor say enlargement will be impossible without such an arrangement. Those against it say it will create an unworkable Union and undermine its single market.
AFTENPOSTEN: Haider has managed to capitalize on old taboos
In Norway's Aftenposten today, Foreign Editor Nils Morten Udgaard comments on a weekend rally in Vienna against the new Austrian coalition government. He writes: "Within two weeks, [far-Right Freedom Party leader] Joerg Haider, with the help of others, has managed to politicize the European Union as an arena for the settling of domestic scores. Significantly, this has happened at the delicate stage when the EU is engaged with both a reform of its inner workings and its enlargement eastward."
Udgaard says that the EU will confront two main issues today that are connected -- reform and enlargement, and whether or not to resume suspended political contacts with Vienna. He argues that Haider -- whose party's recent entry into Austria's government evoked international protests -- has said that he would oppose any EU enlargement unless the new member-states manage to raise their standard of living to EU standards.
Udgaard says such a demand would take a long time to achieve and would damage the enlargement process. He says that Haider has managed to capitalize on old taboos awakened by the fall of the Iron Curtain and the EU's enlargement, asking: "Where does one draw a line without the EU introducing a so-called 'reversed Brezhnev doctrine' -- so named after [former Soviet President Leonid] Brezhnev's notion that regardless of [peoples' desires] Eastern Europe had to remain Communist?" He answers: "If the EU adopts the practice of deciding what is democratic and what is not -- and then attempts to enforce such decisions -- Haider may well have [succeeded in bringing about] its demise as a social and political experiment."
DAILY TELEGRAPH: Britain faces a complicated choice
Much of the British press comments on the end of the Afghan hijacking near London last week. A Daily Telegraph editorial says that under normal conditions the ending of a hijacking with no injuries would be cause for celebration. But the paper writes that the hijacking that concluded at Britain's Stansted Airport has raised fears that it was really an elaborate plot for the hijackers and some of the passengers on board to secure political asylum in Britain.
The editorial goes on to say that Britain faces a complicated choice in reviewing the asylum applications. On the one hand, granting asylum would set an international precedent that could easily lead to more such scenarios. On the other hand, repatriating the Afghan applicants would ensure that they receive a show trial in their home country followed by a public execution.
The paper argues that a change of British tactics is necessary to deal with a sticky situation. First of all, it says, Stansted should be more careful when deciding whether or not to let a hijacked plane land. Second, according to the paper, it is a mistake to rule out the storming of a hijacked plane: "Those planning to forcibly divert a flight should not be confident that it will involve no risk to their lives." Finally, the editorial suggests a larger reconsideration of the criteria for asylum, saying: "Economic ambition has largely taken the place of fear of persecution. The present criteria, dating from another era, have proved inadequate to cope with that change."
SUNDAY TIMES: Asylum applicants cannot just be summarily refused
An editorial in yesterday's Sunday Times argues that the asylum applicants cannot just be summarily refused. The paper writes: "Nobody in [his] right mind would force people who seek refuge in Britain to return to their likely deaths in a country ruled by blood thirsty fundamentalists with an appalling human rights record."
The editorial also notes that more refugees sought sanctuary in Britain last year than ever before, many lured by a generous welfare program and London's scrupulous adherence to the UN convention on asylum seekers. It says that 4,000 of the 90,000 applicants came from Afghanistan, and that the cost to Britain is soaring.
The paper argues says that Britain is a choice spot for asylum seekers, and that this gives Britain special rights to seek a new international agreement on political refugees. The rules for dealing with hijackers also must be reviewed, it continues, saying: "It cannot be right for one country to refuel hijacked planes and pass the problem on to another as Russia did last week."
SUNDAY TIMES: Britain has been caught off-guard by the surge of asylum-seekers.
In yesterday's Sunday times, too, commentator Jon Ungoed-Thomas writes that Britain has become the premier country for asylum-seekers. He says that other European countries are less tolerant and less generous in providing state benefits to asylum seekers:
"France has set up waiting centers where applicants have to stay while claims are processed. Amnesty International recently criticized the poor conditions and lack of hygiene within them. In Germany, which has set up special mobile patrols to stop illegal immigrants at its borders, asylum-seekers must live in designated homes or converted army bases where they are fenced in. In both countries, a couple with two children under 11 seeking asylum would get about $100 a month less in social security payments than in Britain."
Ungoed-Thomas believes that Britain has been caught off-guard by the surge of asylum-seekers. He calls for new measures to deal with tie problem, which he says has become a major financial drain on the country. But he concludes that there is already an almost insurmountable back-log of families awaiting asylum decisions. Because few asylum-seekers are ever returned to their home countries, he notes, the backlog has now grown to 100,000.
FRANKFURTER RUNDSCHAU: The truth about Babitsky's kidnapping could slightly narrow Putin's election chances
An editorial in Germany's Frankfurter Rundschau today focuses on missing Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky. It says that conflicting statements from Russian officials about Babitsky's welfare and whereabouts reflect on acting Russian president Vladimir Putin. The paper calls Putin a "coward" who won't admit to the facts surrounding the reporter's disappearance in Chechnya. It writes: "The truth about Babitsky's kidnapping in the middle of January -- and the truth about the murder of Chechen people [by Russian forces] -- could slightly narrow Putin's election chances. But why otherwise," it asks, "is he waging this war?"
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)