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Western Press Review: Shaping Europe's Future

Prague, 9 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The first part of our review of Western press commentary today focuses on European politics, most notably Italy's upcoming parliamentary elections, in which media magnate Silvio Berlusconi's center-right coalition is favored to win. Other comments look at elections in Spain's troubled Basque Country and the need for French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to speak up about his beliefs on the future of European Union government.


In a commentary in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Michael Gonzalez, deputy editor of the paper's editorial page, calls this Sunday's (13 May) Italian vote "the most important election in Europe this year." Gonzalez writes: "If Silvio Berlusconi succeeds in becoming prime minister, the balance in Europe may finally tip away from those who see government as the answer to all problems."

He goes on to say that Berlusconi's return to power -- along with the ascent of U.S. President George W. Bush, Vicente Fox of Mexico, and Japan's Junichiro Koizumi -- "would appear to confirm a global free-market wave. [A] free-market Italy, along with Spain, Ireland, Austria, Luxembourg, and Britain, could shift the balance of power in the European Union away from the socialist governments in Germany and France." Greater economic liberalism in the EU, he adds, "would make its main goal, expansion to the East, more easily achievable."

Of the numerous criminal accusations brought against Berlusconi in the past -- tax evasion, Mafia connections, complicity in murder and bribery -- Gonzalez writes: "These charges are serious. But it's important to keep in mind that the 1990s investigations of political corruption by crusading judges [quickly] turned into political witch-hunts. Mr. Berlusconi, moreover, has never been convicted of any of the serious crimes of which he has been accused over the years."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" looks at another, less prominent, European election on Sunday -- the Basque Country's vote for its new regional government. The paper says: "Spain's Basque Country, with barely two million inhabitants, may be small [but] it has the dubious distinction of being the last part of Western Europe to be consumed by separatist violence." The Sunday vote, it adds, is "a desperate effort to resolve a conflict that in the past 18 months has claimed 30 lives."

The paper notes that the unresolved conflict -- between advocates of autonomy within Spain and hard-line proponents of full independence -- has created a fertile environment for the ETA terrorist group, which has killed 800 people in 30 years in the name of a "greater" Basque Country. It adds: "[Voters], whether they're 'ethnic' Basque or just plain Spaniards, should be allowed to resolve their fate peacefully at the ballot box. If the majority votes for parties that favor independence, Madrid has a problem on its hands and will not be able to wish it away. But if a majority votes for parties that respect autonomy, and continuation within the Spanish state, Madrid-based politicians should pay heed and do what they can to reinforce that view."


An editorial in today's "Financial Times" calls French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's silence about future EU reform at this week's meeting of European socialists "deafening." The paper says: "German Chancellor [Gerhard Schroeder's] idea of turning the European Union into a more federal structure is anathema to most of France's ruling class, Mr. Jospin included. [An] overt repudiation of Mr. Schroeder's model would show that the [Germany-France relationship] has broken down once and for all. Mr. Jospin has thus chosen to keep quiet."

It is crucial, the paper says, for Jospin to develop his own model: "The prime minister is responsible for implementing EU rules affecting domestic policy. This surely gives Mr. Jospin the authority to join the debate about the EU's future." The longer he waits, the paper adds, "the more likely it is that others will set the agenda -- one that is more difficult for him to accept. [It] is time for Mr. Jospin to say how he believes an EU of 27 or more countries can be governed efficiently and democratically."


Looking at U.S. plans to build a missile defense, a comment in Britain's "Financial Times" says defensive, rather than offensive, systems used to be thought of as the best way to prevent an arms race. Military analyst Lawrence Freedman writes: "Only the particular circumstances of the Cold War overturned this logic, largely because attempts to defend against ballistic missile attacks, unleashing numerous decoys as well as real warheads, seemed doomed to futility. The 1972 ABM Treaty was signed because both Washington and Moscow acknowledged the superpowers' ability to assure each other's destruction."

But now, Freedom continues, "for all the [thousands of millions] spent on research, even the more straightforward defensive technologies remain of uncertain reliability. [Mr. Bush] will struggle to have something in place before the end of a second term, never mind a first. By then, [global] threat assessments may look quite different."

Freedman adds: "The exaggerated international reaction to Mr. Bush's initiative has made a doubtful project appear far more important than it really is. [For] the moment, the appropriate response to NMD (for National Missile Defense) is neither a warm embrace nor a harsh rebuke but polite skepticism. At the same time, doves as well as hawks should not be afraid of a healthy debate on the strategic value of new defensive technologies."


Political analyst Robert Kagan writes in "The Washington Post" that the U.S. Democratic Party "has decided to make a big issue out of Bush's missile defense plans. Yesterday (8 May) 43 Democrats inaugurated the new campaign by gratuitously voting against the confirmation of John Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs [because] he supports the president's policy on missile defense."

However, Kagan continues, "a year ago, [most] Democrats were dutifully following President Bill Clinton as he prepared to deploy the first phase of a missile defense system. [And] lest everyone forget, the Europeans were plenty unhappy with Clinton's plans, too. Months of negotiations with the Russians last year went nowhere, and Clinton had warned that he might withdraw from the ABM treaty if he couldn't negotiate a deal with Moscow."

He adds: "Politics is politics. [The Democrats] now want a win. [They] know they'll have a hard time beating Bush on missile defense if the Europeans [don't] make a fuss. [But] the Europeans need to deal with Bush and have apparently decided that missile defense is not worth the fight. Some European officials actually think it's a good idea."


In a comment published in the "International Herald Tribune," Jeane Kirkpatrick -- U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan's presidency -- notes that last week's ouster of the United States from the UN Human Rights Commission came at the same time as the U.S. candidate was defeated in his effort to win re-election to a seat on the UN International Narcotics Control Board. She writes: "Once again, three EU countries -- Austria, the Netherlands, and France -- were elected, as were Peru and India." She adds that in both of last week's ballots, "The outcome was a surprise, since the number of written confirmations of intended support for the U.S. candidate was substantially higher than the number of votes cast."

Kirkpatrick goes on to say that the votes "make one wonder if the United States has reliable friends and allies among the democracies. [There] is a widespread belief among informed Americans that U.S. allies played a significant role in the U.S. defeat in the Human Rights Commission." The United States, she adds, "will never be able to achieve or even work toward its goals in the United Nations if, in addition to opposing its adversaries, it must also compete with its best friends. Its one vote can never win against the EU's 15."


"The Washington Post" columnist Michael Kelly writes: "The increasingly flat-footed Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed great and obviously sincere surprise over the [U.S. ouster from the human rights commission], declaring that the administration had received '43 solid written assurances' going into the vote. So, 14 nations that had committed themselves to vote for the United States reneged on their promises. [Powell] sought to explain the fiasco away by saying that some allies had swapped their votes, as is common UN practice, because they thought the United States was secure in its seats."

But, Kelly continues, "the first problem with Powell's theory is that the same group of nations that voted to kick the U.S. off the Human Rights Commission also voted, on the same day, to kick the American representative off the Narcotics Control Board." He adds, ironically: "That's right -- our friends simply miscalculated. Twice. In a row."

Of the three European allies who did win commission seats, he quotes fellow "Post" columnist Al Kamen as writing that the "'problem was that Washington couldn't get one of them to back down. So France, home to the glorious Vichy Regime, got 52 votes. Austria, grand master of historical denial and boasting a foreign minister from neo-fascist Joerg Haider's party, got 41. Sweden, which conveniently sat out the Big One (World War Two), got 32, beating the United States by three votes.'"

Kelly continues: "Last week's UN vote was the opening round of what clearly has been coming since George W. Bush was elected, a new period of official anti-Americanism. [We] are being punished for two reasons. One, because Europe's ruling classes will never forgive us for constructing a world in which they no longer rule over anything except artisan cheeses. Two, because we elected a conservative president -- worse, a conservative president who seems intent on fulfilling his conservative promises."