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Western Press Review: EU Problems; Russia

Prague, 15 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A number of problems currently besetting the European Union are the subject of Western press commentary. They include recent protests by truck and other drivers in EU countries at the rising price of gasoline, the continuing fall in value of the union's common currency -- the euro -- and its prospects for expansion to the east. Recent developments in Russia also attract some comments.


In a lead editorial entitled "Euroshambles," the British weekly Economist notes what it lists as the EU's problems: "oil crisis, fuel shortages, street blockades and protests, currency woes, paralyzed governments [and] excessive taxes." It seems, the magazine says, that "the old continent is once again locked in the grip of its old disease, euro-sclerosis, which first struck a quarter-of-a-century ago. Was all the promise of Europe's single market and its new currency," it asks, "just an illusion?"

"The answer is no," the weekly argues. "And yet the past weeks have rightly shaken confidence in the new Europe. France's government," it adds, "must take a good part of the blame for the dramatic spread of fuel-price protests to other countries, because of the concessions that it promptly and cravenly offered to the fishermen, farmers and truck drivers who took to the streets at the end of August." But the editorial also blames other EU governments for not explaining better to their publics the arguments against cutting state taxes on gas and fuel.

It says, too, that "a similar failure to communicate and tendency to dither under pressure have marred the attitudes of [EU] politicians to the weakness of [the ] euro." It notes that "support for the euro has sunk to new lows in Germany. [Yet]," it continues, "the facts argue against the euro pessimists. [The] currency's weakness," it believes, "is overstated." The magazine sums up: "[EU] politicians like to blame the media or the markets, but they should in fact largely be blaming themselves for creating the notion of a currency, and a continent, in crisis."


An editorial in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung is more down-to-earth about the EU common currency's woes, saying: "Of course, the euro's value matters." The paper asks: "How much further will the euro fall? Isn't it high time the [EU 11-nation euro-zone] central banks undertook concerted intervention on its behalf? The chorus of impatient questions [like these] over the last few days has not made the European Central Bank's, or ECB's job any easier -- that's for sure."

The paper goes on: "Wim Duisenberg, the ECB's otherwise so-reserved president, even felt obliged to unleash uncharacteristically harsh criticism on the doubters: the 'chatter' about the single currency could undermine confidence in the euro, he boomed in Brussels, thus indirectly leveling his gaze at Germany's Gerhard Schroeder and others who have lately played down the euro-rate's significance."

The editorial then says: "Now though, with its announcement to sell thousands of millions in foreign-currency reserves, the ECB has landed a skilful counterblow." But it carefully adds: "Let no one believe that the mini-intervention has done the trick. For a start, the size of the intervention, at 2.5 billion euros, is far too modest to have any durable effect. Granted though, through its 'accounting' move the ECB has made it crystal-clear that not only silence is golden."


In yesterday's New York Times, analyst Floyd Norris calls "the euro experiment [a] bold idea that isn't working, [the euro] a paper currency without a government. And that lack is one reason the euro has sunk far below any reasonable level." Norris continues: "[The EU] has a central bank, but the euro has 11 national governments, None of them," he says, "can set policy for the area as a whole, and each of them can disclaim responsibility for what happens to the currency." He concludes: "A strong government for the euro region could fight [against its weakening]. But this currency has 11 governments, which for some purposes is the same as having none."


In the International Herald Tribune today, former Finnish diplomat Max Jacobson discusses what he considers the cloudy prospects for EU expansion. He writes: "Debate on enlargement of the EU reveals how profoundly the climate has changed since the triumphant Paris summit conference 10 years ago, when the goal of creating a peaceful, democratic and undivided Europe was proclaimed. The EU governments remain committed to admitting 12 states in due course, with Turkey hovering in the background, but the sense of mission that originally inspired them has evaporated. Enlargement," he says, "has become a burdensome duty.

The commentary continues: "The Central and East European countries have made great strides, but Western Europe has not stood still waiting to be caught up with.

Grassroots opinion in the EU countries," it says, "is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to admitting new member states. In the three front-line states -- Austria, Germany and Finland -- according to a recent poll, only 20 percent of the electorate supports enlargement. People are influenced by vastly exaggerated primitive fears of an invasion of hordes of job seekers, criminals and drug peddlers. Xenophobia is on the rise -- not only in Austria."

"On a higher level," Jacobson adds, "opposition to enlargement is influenced by more sophisticated worries. Inevitably, more member states will mean less coherence, greater economic disparities, more diversity in political cultures, more differences in security interests. Decision-making will become more complex. The goal of making the EU a more effective political actor equal to the United States on the world scene will become harder to reach. Hence," he concludes, "ideas like creating a federal structure within the Union or a separate secretariat for a French-German directorate."

Jacobson also writes: "An opportunity for delay [in expansion] is offered by the [current] inter-governmental conference on reforming the decision-making procedures of the EU. Rumor has it that it may not reach agreement by the end of the year as planned. This," he says, " would be a cause of secret relief for some EU governments."


Two comments on Russia center on relations between its government and its media. In a news analysis for the French daily Liberation, Helene Despic-Popovic says that yesterday's "publication of a Russian doctrine on security of information -- signed last Saturday by President Vladimir Putin -- has provoked a wave of concern among the defenders of freedom of the press in Russia." Writing from Moscow, she quotes Oleg Panfilof, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Journalists, as saying: "This doctrine has no value as law, and that is what is most scary about it. It is a declaration of intention that demonstrates the government's will to again become a propaganda machine."

Despic-Popovic concludes: "[Russia's] independent press has cause for concern. But," she adds, "it is unlikely that the authorities -- which depend on support from Western countries -- will dare to attack the Western press [in Russia]. More likely, their aim is to maintain continuous tension and force the media into self- censorship."


In a commentary from Moscow for the U.S. weekly New Republic, Masha Gessen recalls: "When news of the government's outrageous mishandling of the [Kursk] catastrophe leaked out --the four days before Russia accepted international help, the six days before Putin interrupted his Black Sea vacation, the waves of official misinformation -- many observers in Russia and abroad predicted the incident would end Putin's political honeymoon. [At the time,] on non-government channels, TV and radio personalities berated the president and his men almost ceaselessly."

"Then," she goes on, "something strange happened. A day or two after rescue efforts were abandoned, Russian talk-show callers began to express their support for Putin once again, arguing that he'd done his best with the lousy navy he'd inherited. Russian Orthodox clergy also took to the airwaves, taking the media to task for criticizing Putin so harshly at a painful time."

She concludes; "It now appears likely that Putin's fumbling of the Kursk accident will not damage him politically at all. The iron fist that he has brought to politics, while dismaying to elites and foreigners, still appeals to ordinary Russians."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego contributed to this report)