Monday, April 17, 2006

The Eye Of The Beholder

Europe's dangerous sickness

By Patrick Seale, Special to Gulf News

Europe is suffering from a dangerous disease of which the many symptoms are fragile governments, weak economies, institutional paralysis and political impotence.

Is Europe's illness temporary or permanent? Everyone hopes it is only a passing phase, because the emergence of the European Union over the past half century has been one of the world's great political achievements.

Not only have core European countries such as Germany, France, Italy and the United Kingdom managed to overcome their centuries-old rivalries and conflicts, and to some extent pool their sovereignty, but they have also managed to draw into their democratic club formerly Fascist states such as Spain and Portugal and formerly Communist states such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, among many others. Membership of the Union has also contributed to the astonishing dynamism and prosperity of formerly poor countries such as Ireland.

So the 25-member Union which is likely to expand to 27 or 28 when Romania, Bulgaria and hopefully Turkey join has been a great success. The 450 million people of the European Union live in an island of relative peace and prosperity compared to much of the rest of the world.

But problems have now arisen, perhaps in part because of the over-rapid expansion. The forward momentum has been broken, resulting in widespread disillusion with the Union, not least among large sections of Europe's own population, as was made clear by the rejection of a proposed new European Constitution by France and the Netherlands.

Today, the governments of some key countries face tremendous internal difficulties, leaving them little time or energy to address the Union's pressing problems.

Paper-thin victory

In Italy, the paper-thin victory of Romano Prodi's centre-left coalition over the right-wing populist, Sylvio Berlusconi, will make stable government exceedingly difficult. In France, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's attempt to reform the rigid labour laws was defeated by massive street protests, largely by young people afraid for their future. In Germany, the new female Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has a tough job managing her grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats while, in foreign policy, striking a balance between Russia and the United States. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has been gravely weakened by his decision to join America's war in Iraq a decision which dealt a fatal blow to a common European foreign and defence policy.

All European governments are worried about how to stem the flood of illegal immigrants from the third world and how to integrate into European society some 20 million Muslims who, in many cases, feel culturally alienated and economically ill-favoured.

Because Europe's main governments are preoccupied by internal difficulties, the EU as a whole has not been able to pull its weight in the world. It has become politically toothless. There is no common European voice in international affairs, simply a lot of discordant voices, arguing different causes, often at cross-purposes with each other. As a result, there is no firm and coherent European contribution to making the world a safer and better place.

Bad moment

This European sickness comes at a particularly bad moment. The world is racked by conflicts, and none more destructive than in the Arab and Muslim world, a region which is Europe's back yard. Europe and the Middle East are umbilically connected historically, geographically, demographically. Whatever plague infects the Middle East whether it be poverty, violence, terrorism, autocratic government, or ethnic and religious hatred has immediate repercussions in Europe. Nowhere is it more urgent for Europe to contribute to the peaceful resolution of conflicts and to project its core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. But, as we have seen, Europe is in no state at present to play this role.

This is all the more unfortunate because the United States the world's "hyper-power" is itself contributing to violence and disorder by its aggressive behaviour, by its obsession with the threat from "terrorism", by its uncritical support of Israel and its apparent contempt for international institutions and agreements.

European impotence has been particularly striking in four key areas. It has failed to contribute to ending the war in Iraq, which is spreading its poison throughout the whole region; to defusing the confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programme; to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, without doubt the main breeding ground of terrorism; or to establishing a friendly relationship with the world of Islam. For example, it is scandalous that the EU has joined in the boycott of the Islamic movement Hamas, which the Palestinians have democratically chosen as their government.

This is an exceedingly dangerous moment in the Middle East. If Europe abdicates its role, it will inevitably suffer the painful consequences.