Europe’s grandiose promises bite dust in London

PHEW! What a week that went by! First, it was a whopping £20 million concert in Hyde Park for the global ‘poverty manifesto’ to focus the minds of the G8 leaders. Next, it was the jubilation over London’s Olympics victory in Singapore that drew a pledge of £5 billion for a three-week celebration of sporting stardom.

By M. N. Hebbar (VIEW FROM BERLIN)

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Published: Fri 15 Jul 2005, 11:24 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 3:14 PM

And finally, as though to compliment the G8 leaders parsing their communiqués on a remote Scottish golf course at Gleneagles (cost £100 million), the London blasts went off. Fantasy had collided with reality. "What poverty?" questioned an incredulous African voice, bemoaning the indecency of priorities.

Even as Tony Blair tried to assert in his response to the blasts that the London bombs only validated his "war" (Iraq) analysis and that they were not the outcome of his conduct of that war, his speech to the House of Commons, wherein he associated London’s bombs with the global war on terror, implicitly gave terrorism the status of a war.

The London scene was horrific. The mind-numbing pictures of death and destruction everywhere begged for respite. The victims, rescuers, and plain passers-by, all silent and dignified in their own response, reflected the resilience and courage of a people that have made London a city like no other.

Terrorists will not change the British way of life, said the Queen. But they have. We will not be intimidated, said the prime minister. When terrorists seek to change our way of life, he continued, we will not be changed. But they are both wrong. The Londoners have suddenly been changed and still, in the aftermath, are continuing to be changed.

The backlash is there for all to see. The Londoners are aware that the doings of madmen and psychopaths are unpredictable but there is a silent welling up of anger that all this mayhem was the price that Britain was paying for its decision to go to war in Iraq despite the massive anti-war protest on the streets that London had ever seen. An overwhelming majority of those questioned agreed that the pretext for Britain joining the assault on Iraq was mendacious.

The support that Blair initially enjoyed in the euphoria surrounding the G8 summit and the Olympian victory is rapidly evaporating. Blair himself has begun to sense the public mood and is bracing himself for renewed attacks on the issue. It’d be well within the realm of possibility that Blair’s days might be numbered if the present dissatisfaction and disillusionment, to say nothing of further realities on the ground, continued.

Turning to Gleneagles, it still beats imagination why the G8 leaders continue to inflict such enormous expense, avoidable suspense and logistical hardships on the people at the cost of millions of dollars each year for their economies, producing only the proverbial mouse at the end of it —inane communiqués promising little else but pious intentions and commitments not always honoured in the spirit.

The "fireside chats" initiated by ex-German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and France’s ex-president Giscard d’Estaing in the 70s have now ballooned into grotesque proportions. There’s a strong case for the leaders to give it some serious thought, whether governments cannot achieve results on an effective but unpretentious scale.

The communiqué that Blair managed to produce at the end brought out, for instance, a stirring call by the leaders for freer trade. At the exact time when the G8 leaders were agreeing on a rhetorical boost for the Doha round of WTO talks, their Geneva negotiators were at loggerheads, doggedly holding to the rigidity of long-fixed positions, and threatening to stalemate it. President Bush’s calls for free trade and an end to the EU agricultural subsidies were just lip service, given that this came from someone who has been able to do absolutely nothing about the US cotton subsidies that have been crippling cotton farmers in Africa for years. Nor has the EU been able to do much about its own sugar subsidies.

And aid? While an aid increase, in real terms, of $50 billion by 2010 would be progress, most of what was achieved by Blair was persuading fellow G8 leaders not to back away from previous promises. It’s no secret that individual pledges made under multilateral duress or under the glare of an international summit have a way of turning ineffectual once the pressure subsides. Besides, some of the G8 leaders —Bush, Schroeder, Chirac, Koizumi and Blair —may not be around in 2010 as heads of their governments, making their present promises even less binding.

Sick man of Europe

As Europe debates its future in the wake of its discredited constitution and the budget imbroglio, Germany, now nicknamed ‘the sick man of Europe’, is no longer in a position to provide financial leverage to the EU, burdened as it is with huge debts and a stagnant economy. And by all reckoning, it is about to change its political complexion with an election this fall whose expected result will call into question economic and social tenets that underpinned its growth since World War II.

So there was welcome relief when Blair reached out to Germans after the EU summit crisis through the columns of ‘Bild’, the best-selling tabloid here, in an effort to defend himself against allegations that he had wrecked the budget negotiations. His renewed message was that Europe needed a "future-oriented" approach that invested in innovation and education, rather than in "giving every cow two euros a day". It’s expected that a victorious Ms. Merkel in September will play down the Franco-German partnership in favour of allies like Britain and US. She is said to be receptive to Blair’s calls for the EU to revisit its agricultural subsidies, which disproportionately benefit the French.

In the meanwhile, it has gone almost unnoticed in the international community that Chancellor Schroeder has succeeded in contriving to lose the ‘confidence’ vote in parliament last week, thus precipitating elections in September. But there’s always the unexpected. He has now to appeal to the German President Horst Koehler for dissolving parliament, an eventuality made all the more ticklish as the chancellor still has a majority in parliament. The president has three weeks to decide on the course of German politics, and of Germany’s role in Europe.

M N Hebbar is a Berlin based commentator



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