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Western Press Review: Uniting Europe, Dividing The Middle East

Prague, 11 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary turns much of its attention today to Europe: European Union governance and enlargement, and the euro. Other commentators examine developments in the Middle East.


In an editorial, "The Irish Times" applauds Polish voters for approving EU membership for their country in a referendum at the weekend. The newspaper says the judgment is good both for Poland and for the EU.

It says: "The Polish referendum decision to join the European Union has given its own political system, and the EU as a whole, a real boost during the closing stages of negotiating the EU draft constitutional treaty this week and next."

The editorial concludes: "Nongovernmental organizations and civil society are underdeveloped in Poland. Despite the transition from statist communism since 1989, its institutions remain highly politicized. Many Poles hope EU membership will contribute to changing these conditions by encouraging autonomous social movements, a more effective party system, and a legal order capable of withstanding corruption. This requires an awareness that change is possible and desirable. Poland's voters have demonstrated by their active engagement in the referendum that they appreciate this fact."


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" says the Polish referendum demonstrates a new maturity in Poland's government and society. The "Tribune" says: "Poland has often been at the center of history without its consent. The German invasion of Poland started World War Two, and the Yalta Conference's assignment of Poland to the Soviet Union's sphere of influence helped give rise to the Cold War. But last weekend, in a landslide vote, Poles reaffirmed their control over the nation's destiny by ratifying their government's decision to join the European Union.

"The EU, a confederation best known for bringing much of the continent into a single market, may sound as dry and tedious as an economics dissertation. The average American doesn't spend a lot of time worrying about how the Polish economy will be affected by integration with its neighbors. But it would be a mistake to see this as a minor economic event. The entry into the EU is just one leg of the astonishing journey taken by Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe over the last two decades."

Several newspapers comment on the decision of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government on 9 June not to cast its lot -- and its currency -- in with the euro, the European currency -- at least not yet.


The "Financial Times" says in an editorial that, having held the euro at arm's length for now, the Blair government must demonstrate a commitment behind its words that it favors a pro-European consensus.

The newspaper says that Blair and Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, during a rare joint press conference yesterday, "agreed on the importance of Britain's engagement with the EU and promised to take on anti-European prejudices and myths." The editorial continues: "Whether they are serious in these promises can be established with two simple tests."

The first test, the editorial says, is whether Blair successfully defends against anti-EU critics an increased EU governing role in such areas as immigration and asylum. It says: "The second test is early progress on overcoming the obstacles to euro membership. Mr. Brown is now signed up to a road map of sorts and what he commits to, he usually achieves."


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," commentator Therese Raphael says the Labour government's disarray on the euro currency has breathed new life into the long-moribund Tory Party. She writes: "Such is the transformational power of the euro debate that it may actually have revived that dinosaur of British politics, the Tory Party."

The writer says: "Up to now, the debate in Britain has been mostly two entrenched sides spatting over truisms, oversimplifications and question-begging positions. The euroskeptics tend to demonize everything European and ignore what is positive about Europe or the euro. The euro-enthusiasts tend to gloss over constitutional issues deserving of serious deliberation, and they place too much stock in Britain's power to change Europe."

Raphael continues: "Mr. Brown of course issued a resounding 'no' dressed up as a future yes. Britain's economy had failed to sufficiently converge with its continental partners and was not sufficiently flexible to support a shared central bank, he said. That's two tests down. Failure of these tests means that the euro would not bring a sufficient boost to investment or jobs, he concluded. Two more down. The final test -- benefit to the U.K.'s massive financial industry -- passed. Mr. Brown then alluded to a route map to engineer the elusive convergence and flexibility."

The writer says: "All of this is music to Tory ears. Britain's chancellor and shadow chancellor couldn't agree with each other more on the merits of joining the single currency. Both have set themselves against it. But only one of them is being honest about his position. It's a refreshing change for the Conservatives."


Britain's "Times" says in an editorial that Prime Minister Tony Blair appears to be preparing a campaign of polarization in an attempt to win the British public to the euro. The editorial says: "The prime minister's advisers appear to have convinced him that the only way he can persuade the British to abandon the pound for the euro is by presenting it as a stark choice between being 'in Europe' or outside."

The editorial continues: "The prime minister undoubtedly believes that. But most British voters believe the opposite, which is that the decision on which currency to adopt has nothing to do with their support for EU membership, and no bearing on whether they are 'good Europeans.' "

"The Times" says: "The prime minister is softening up the ground for a campaign depicting thoughtful opponents of the euro as rabid anti-Europeans bent on withdrawal from the EU. Some of his advisers also favor adopting similar tactics with respect to the new EU constitution, where they argue that a referendum should be offered, but only after the government has signed the new treaty and Parliament has ratified it. The choice would then be presented as one between endorsing the treaty, or rejecting it and setting Britain on course to withdrawal from the EU. Mr. Blair should have no hesitation in rejecting such a political confidence trick."


Hamish McRae, a writer for Britain's "Independent," says the public and the press largely overlooked a significant element in the Blair-Brown no-euro-for-now discussion -- that is, its overtures to the United States.

The commentator writes: "The other element of the speech -- the plan to reduce trade barriers between the U.S. and the European Union -- did not need to be there at all. It is a perfectly sensible long-term objective, but it has nothing particularly to do with Britain adopting the euro. So why say it now?

"There are, I suggest, two reasons. The first is to signal to the EU that Britain regards its trade relations with the U.S. as extremely important -- a wise move as the U.S. economy will, for demographic reasons alone, grow more rapidly than the European economy over the next generation. The second is to signal to the United States that Britain sees it as in its long-term self-interest to have a free-trade agreement with NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement]."

McRae writes: "What about the message to the United States? It is, I suggest, mostly the straightforward one that it is in the self-interest of America to have a Europe that is bound in more closely by trade relationships. If diplomacy were to fail as badly at an economic level as it has failed at a political one, it would be very easy for the two trade blocs to slide into a more antagonistic relationship."


Both "The Wall Street Journal Europe" and the British "Daily Telegraph" profess to find healthful democratic debate in this week's efforts to conclude a European constitution.

The "Journal" says in an editorial: "This Friday the 13th looks to be bad luck for Europe's constitution makers. As this deadline for the Convention on the Future of Europe to present a final draft approaches, the enterprise seems destined to disappoint.

"The vocal disagreements over the draft over the past months are welcome in any democratic debate. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the Convention president, might seek comfort in the diversity of unhappiness. Committed federalists and euro-Gaullists, the small states, euro-skeptics, liberals and socialists all dislike, for different reasons, the document that has been cobbled together."

The newspaper says: "The Convention was always, perhaps, a grand idea doomed to disappoint in practice. Too many actors with too little vision were bound to produce this sort of document."

It concludes: "It's not too late, though, for the member states to kill off the provisions that give the EU powers best left in national capitals and rein in the foreign policy ambitions of a few mandarins in Brussels."


"The Daily Telegraph" writer Janet Daley says in a commentary that she had hoped to hear answers and counter answers in the EU constitutional debates. She says she was disappointed.

Daley writes: "I had hoped that the Brown-Blair show -- the official kick-start to the pro-euro campaign -- might give some substantive answers to these questions.

"What we got instead was a ritual kicking of the 'myths and prejudices' supposedly perpetrated by the benighted anti-European press and one more curious argument in favor of entry.

"If we joined under the right conditions, they said, the blessed stability that the chancellor has bestowed on the British economy -- low interest rates, low inflation, blah-blah -- would be 'entrenched.' We would be 'locked in' -- Mr. Blair's very words -- to the present set of glorious circumstances, thus guaranteeing our 'security' forever.

"I cannot imagine any American political leader suggesting that an 'entrenched' economy was a good thing. Does New Labour really have no idea how free markets work? That you cannot 'lock in' economic conditions and that 'security' in a free society can never be guaranteed? No sir, there is very little risk of our EU partners creating a United States of Europe.

"They do not begin to understand what that would involve."


Turning to commentary on the Middle East, German newspapers criticize an Israeli helicopter attack yesterday on a car carrying Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a well-known leader in the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

Dietrich Alexander writes in "Die Welt," "In any case, this commando action was counterproductive and shortsighted. It plays into the hands of the wrong people, the Palestinian extremists."


A "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" commentary says: "Counter to the assurances of the Israeli government that it will give the new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas a chance, it is stabbing him in the back. For the attack on a Hamas leader only strengthens the Palestinian folk in the Gaza Strip in their belief that the prime minister is a U.S. and Israeli puppet."


Inge Guenther writes in the "Frankfurter Rundschau": "For sure, Hamas is the greatest impediment to the 'road map' for peace. But what would it have cost Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to give his Palestinian freedom partner Mahmoud Abbas a chance to at least force some of the militants to negotiate? Instead, he has threatened them with military escalation as a premature act rather than entering into political negotiations. The consequences in any case are incalculable. There is one person who can set the matter right. George W. Bush. He must exert his might so that the lovely talks in Aqaba do not fade into a cheap peace show."


Britain's "Times" concurs that the Israeli action undercut Abbas and any chance he might have had to advance the cause of peace. A "Times" editorial writes: "The new Palestinian leader has been undermined."

The newspaper continues: "No friend of Israel would deny that the country has a right to take pre-emptive action against those who would kill its citizens or blow up its shopping centers. Whether Israel was right, however, to attempt the targeted assassination of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader and a strong opponent of the 'road map' peace plan, is less clear. Statesmanship means weighing actions and reactions, balancing the short term with the long term and calculating the political consequences of military engagement. [U.S. President George W.] Bush clearly believes that the helicopter strike against Rantisi, which missed him but killed his bodyguard and a bystander and wounded more than two dozen others, was inconsistent with Israel's larger objectives and is therefore deeply troubling."


"Los Angeles Times" writer Robin Wright says in a news analysis that the Israeli assassination attempt caught the Bush government off guard. The analysis says: "President Bush's rare public rebuke of Israel for launching two attacks on Palestinians in the space of a few hours triggered an uncomfortable confrontation Tuesday over the peace 'road map' that came much sooner than Washington had anticipated.

"The White House was caught off guard by Israel's attempted assassination of [Abdel Aziz] Rantisi, a senior leader of the extremist group Hamas, then was further unsettled by a second Israeli strike launched around the same time as a Palestinian attack."

The writer says: "Since leading a modest peace summit last week in Aqaba, Jordan, the president had been prepared to lean on the parties if they appeared to waver in their commitment to reaching a final settlement. But Washington had not expected the road map to be in trouble even before the new U.S. coordinator, John Wolf, arrived in the region this week to begin implementing it, according to U.S. officials.

"Washington interpreted [yesterday's] violence -- which followed a weekend assault on Israeli troops -- as open defiance of an agreement by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to give Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas time to build a new security force so that he could contain Islamic extremists, the sources said."


The "International Herald Tribune" balances the commentary. It denounces a weekend suicide attack that evidently provided the cause for yesterday's Israeli assault. The editorial says: "A rare and alarming collaboration took place on Sunday: Three Palestinian terror groups carried out a joint attack at an entrance to the Gaza Strip, killing four Israeli soldiers. Two of the groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are militantly Islamic. The third, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, is associated with Fatah, the nationalist movement of Yasser Arafat. The attack came the day after Arafat belittled the peace summit meeting attended by the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas.

"The events underline the need to repudiate Arafat, something Arab and some European governments fail to do by continuing to meet with him. It is also time to recalculate the divide within Palestinian society. Rather than categorize groups as Islamist or nationalist, one should distinguish between those that favor a negotiated two-state solution and those that pursue violence and terror. It is the difference between those who focus on their grievances and those working for peace. Although they theoretically accept a two-state solution, Arafat and Fatah radicals have become dangerous obstacles and must be seen as every bit as hostile as Hamas, which rejects Israel's existence."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)