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Western Press Review: U.S. Supreme Court Decision, EU's Indecision

Prague, 12 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- To each continent, its own concerns. The American press is focusing squarely today on the U.S. Supreme Court's current deliberations over Florida's balloting in last month's presidential election. The court's unprecedented decision on whether or not to resume recounting disputed so-called "under-votes" may determine who will be the next U.S. president, Republican George W. Bush or Democrat Al Gore. At the same time, much of Western European commentary assesses the European Union's protracted summit in Nice, which ended early yesterday morning. Many, but not all, analysts see the meeting -- which was charged with agreeing on key internal reforms before the Union's expansion to the East -- as indecisive and less than a total success.


Two U.S. national dailies -- both of which supported Gore for election -- seek hints of the Supreme Court's eventual decision in questions posed by some of the nine justices in yesterday's oral arguments. The New York Times' "view [is] that a strong case was made not just for upholding the Florida [Supreme Court] ruling and resuming the [disputed] vote count, but doing so in a way that would overcome many of the concerns raised by Bush and his legal team. Much of the Bush appeal," it says, "revolves around the notion that a recount of selective ballots in Florida under varying standards was a denial of the equal protection and due process provisions of the federal Constitution. [Gore's lawyer] undermined that argument by noting that Florida ballots were already treated differently from county to county -- without objection from Bush -- because of variations in voting systems and counting machines."

The paper then argues: "After nearly five weeks of legal maneuvering and political bickering, the court has a chance to bring the election to a ballot-based conclusion that would be fair to both candidates and reassure the nation that the man who collected the most votes in Florida is moving into the White House. [The] nation," it concludes, "yearns for a ruling that matches the gravity of the moment, recognizes the sanctity of the ballot and preserves respect for Supreme Court justices as referees who are able to rise above their political loyalties."


The Washington Post writes in its editorial: "[The] court's hearing yesterday didn't strike us as a partisan squabble. What we thought we heard was the justices grappling with what most fair-minded people would agree are some very tough questions. No ruling at this stage can produce an entirely fair result," the paper says. "The goal has to be to find an outcome that as many people as possible can accept as reasonably fair."

The editorial goes on to say: "The dilemma arises out of the inconceivable closeness of the election results [less than 1,000-vote difference out of six million ballots cast], the contradictions in Florida law that closeness has exposed, and the mistakes and bad choices by various actors in this drama since election day -- including the candidates. Both now claim to be acting in accord with grand principles," the editorial adds, "but both have been guided more by self-interest. There's nothing surprising and maybe nothing wrong about that, but if both had been a bit more interested early on in a fair outcome, the dilemma now might not be so acute."

More neutrally than the New York Times, the Washington Post sums up: "Some of the nine [justices] toyed with the possibility of letting the recount resume, but under more consistent statewide standards, [while] others seemed ready just to cut it off. Like many others," the paper says, "we would hope that they muster more than five votes for their decision [because only five voted Saturday for the temporary suspension of the count]. We also would hope that their decision would be greeted with some respect for the difficulty of the issues -- and with respect for the court's place as ultimate authority."


Two more partisan views of the Supreme Court's decision are expressed by the Boston Globe, a pro-Democrat daily, and the pro-Republican Washington Times. The Globe's editorial flatly urges in its title: "Resume counting [the Florida ballots]," and later calls the U.S. Supreme Court's temporary suspension of the count "shocking."

The paper says further: "Throughout this tortuous process, we have remained confident that the final resolution from the courts, while not satisfying all parties, would carry a sense of non-partisan fairness that would uphold the nation's faith in its judiciary, and allow the new administration to begin on a positive footing. That confidence," the paper says, "was shaken for the first time on Saturday [with the U.S. Supreme Court suspension of the count]. When people are afraid to count the votes, democracy is in trouble."


The Washington Times uses equally strong language in its attack on what it labels as "liberals" who support resuming the Florida vote count. The paper's editorial says: "In arguing for the resumption in Florida of what euphemistically passes for 'vote counting' these days, liberals on and off the U.S. Supreme Court have gone on the attack. They are doing so on [grounds that are] spurious."

The paper argues that "liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg yesterday led the attack within the court, [asserting] that 'in case after case, we have said we owe the highest respect to what the state supreme court says is the state law.' Standing alone," the editorial says, "[her statement] holds great merit. However," it adds, "[the] principal issues before the U.S. Supreme Court have nothing to do with states' rights. Rather, they involve deference -- or the lack thereof -- to the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes, both of which supersede the Florida Constitution."

"Outside the Supreme Court," the editorial says, "liberals were trumpeting Florida's sunshine law, which will guarantee that the 'votes' will eventually be 'counted' regardless of whether the U.S. Supreme Court shuts down the Florida debacle once and for all. Well," the editorial concludes, "if liberals plan to 'count' these under-votes using the same constantly changing, unconstitutional procedures that have dominated the manual 'vote-counting' process so far, by all means, let them have at it. That," it concludes, "is no reason why the U.S. Supreme Court should sanction this blatant fiasco as the deciding factor in the nation's presidential election."


The preponderant view of the EU's Nice summit in the West European press is that the meeting failed to achieve many the 15-nation group's critical internal reforms. Britain's Times calls it "a clouded summit," writing: "When it is finally published, the Treaty of Nice should be prefaced with the words of the general confession in the [Anglican Church's] Book of Common Prayer: 'We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.'"

"It will take weeks," the paper's editorial continues, "to sort out which was which. It could take even longer before the full impact of some decisions, notably on the extensions to majority voting and the new rules governing 'enhanced co-operation' between some but not all EU states, can be assessed. But," it says, "the proper starting point is with the avowed task this summit set itself: to equip the EU for enlargement [by enacting the reforms.]"

The Times' assessment is that "it is, at best, a ramshackle palace that has been cobbled together. After endless talk about streamlining the EU's cumbersome institutions, they look more lumbering than before. The European Commission will grow fatter. There were already more European commissioners than there were jobs for them to do. Now, the number will grow with each new member and this absurdity is not to be revisited until there are 27 countries in the EU. In addition," its says, "the powers of the President of the Commission have been given a substantial boost. The European Parliament, unwieldy as it already is, will also grow, to 740 members. This," it concludes, "is diplomacy by the 'think of a number and then add to it' method."


In a commentary for the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, entitled "Salade Nicoise" [a French mixed salad], Andras Oldag says the "Nice agreement [is] no great achievement for Europe." He writes: "The EU's heads of government fought their way to a limited compromise agreement to round off the longest EU [summit] of all time and save the [meeting] from the threat of a debacle. This was a week of painfully long debates, accusations and disagreements," he says, "which the leaders in the end simply patched up as best they could. When the summit was over, talk on all sides was of success, but this means little given the dearth of results when measured against pre-conference expectations." There two consolations for Oldag: "At least," he says, "the EU can now proceed with the process of eastward enlargement. Also, the euro should be safe from collapse at the expense of the dollar. Complete failure in Nice would have meant another blow to confidence in the single currency, which is already fragile enough."

He goes on: "Nice suffered due to a lack of the political will needed to drive on the process of internal reform on the part of the majority of member states. The reason for their hemming and hawing is clear: enlargement will bring about a shift in the balance of power within the community over the course of the next few years. In short, the EU is 'going east.' This process," Oldag sums up, "is not only about geographic change. It will mean political, cultural and economic transformation in the broadest sense and no one can say for sure what the consequences of that transformation will be. The politicians of the EU are building themselves a new house without paying too much heed to the stability of its foundations."


In the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, John Vinocur writes in a news analysis: "In opening the way for the [Union's] enlargement into eastern Europe, its leaders have come up with a treaty that re-jiggers details of its organization but fails one more time to bring the EU a sense of unified power or direction. Perversely," he adds, "[what agreement there was on EU reforms] assures instead the perpetuation of a picture of a complicated, contradictory Europe too self-absorbed to re-create itself as a more coherent whole before it takes in applicants from the old Soviet orbit over the next five years."

Vinocur goes on: "Under the circumstances, this passed for progress [in Nice]: The European Commission, or executive body, got bigger rather than smaller in the interests of streamlining. Decision-making and power-sharing became more complex with the creation of three levels of voting procedures. Veto rights disappeared where they didn't matter much, but were reaffirmed in the areas that continue to reflect the EU's 15 nationalisms and its lack of conceptual and political unity."

He adds: "As it turned out, this historical space-holder will last less than three years, because the participants wound up scheduling another inter-governmental conference in 2004. [In] practical terms, [this] signifies that everything is open for discussion again just a little bit down the road."

The analyst sums up: "In fact, the inch-by-inch misery of five days of dispute among 15 member states trying to rationalize the EU's functioning produced only a single long-term certainty: that a EU with an eventual 27 members means an increasing focus on a Europe that could subdivide into a system of hard-core task forces created among countries wanting to move ahead in defined areas like the common currency. The [Nice treaty makes] it easier for such groups to form. [At] the least, this approach conjures up the still-taboo notion of a Europe of many classes and speeds, far from the ideals of an integrated whole."


The influential French provincial daily Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace says the Nice meeting evokes at best what is calls "modesty." The paper's editorial says: "To say that Nice did not achieve its aims is almost self-evident. But," it goes on, "to blame one country, or the French EU presidency [which concludes at the end of this month], for the failure would be unjust."

Rather, the paper argues, "the difficulties encountered in Nice prove that no present EU member-state wants another [that is, larger] Europe. The existing one satisfies all current members." The editorial concludes: "Today's EU is limited by internal conflicts between national sovereignty and the dream of further integration. That's why," it says, "it will long continue to be only an economic and agricultural club, soon to be federated by the introduction of a common currency. [That Europe, reinforced in] Nice, is not the Europe of the future. It remains the Europe of the past, brought to a degree of technocratic perfection that amounts to paralysis."

Other West European papers are not as kind about France's handling of its six-month EU presidency and its organization of the Nice summit. Here are brief excerpts from a chorus of criticism of the French government:


Sueddeutsche Zeitung [editorial]: "The French presidency paid too much attention to its own national interests. In the history of the EU, [Nice] will figure as an example of extremely bad management."


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Never before has a summit been so badly prepared. Rarely has the spirit of Europe been so little evident as during the days and nights in Nice."


Belgium's Le Soir: "What a lack of elan in [Nice]! The EU leaders acted like rug-dealers making sure they would be paid enough for abandoning the slightest bit of national sovereignty. [That includes the] French presidency which, charged with submitting [objective] compromise proposals, took care above all of its own interests."


A few commentators are less critical of the summit's results. Britain's Financial Times, for example, speaks of "necessary deals in Nice." It writes in its editorial: "It was never going to be easy to reach a deal at the European summit in Nice. There was too much prestige at stake all round. In the end, a deal was done that just about did the job. The treaty," the paper adds, "will allow the EU to move forward with the historic goal of eastern enlargement. More than half-a-century after the end of the second world war, the once-isolated countries of central and eastern Europe are now within sight of joining the prosperous, more stable and more secure western half of the continent."

The paper continues in the same vein: "This outcome should provoke relief rather than disappointment. Compromises struck at the very last minute are inevitably messy," it argues. "The treaty is more modest than some Euro-enthusiasts wanted. But it achieves the reforms of EU institutions and decision-making that will be necessary to prevent paralysis as the EU enlarges to 27 or more members during the next decade."


The Wall Street Journal Europe, based in Brussels, also has some kind things to say about the Nice meeting. The paper writes in an editorial: "The Congress of Vienna it wasn't, but in the end [Nice] produced a sound treaty that sets the stage for the EU to take in former Soviet satellites. Even if that turns out to be its only achievement, the Treaty of Nice must be counted a success."

The paper goes on: "A decade after the collapse of communism, central [and eastern] Europe is receiving earned recognition for its efforts to establish liberal democracy and that recognition in itself will help solidify those gains. EU leaders, who said they needed to work out problems in the system before going ahead with enlargement, now claim the main obstacles have been removed. Of course," the editorial adds, "the world will know for certain whether the treaty fulfills its promise only when the [east] European candidates actually become members. But it will now be difficult to turn back on promises that by 2003 the EU will open its doors to those countries that fulfill the membership criteria."

"Ironically," the editorial argues, "by failing to accomplish the most ambitious 'reforms' that some EU leaders had sought, Nice may have actually have furthered this goal. The failure will preserve competition among member states to come up with policies that further a liberal economic order. That," it says, "can only foster economic growth."