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Monday, July 07, 2003

Our Opinion

Lost Opportunities

The Greek presidency of the European Union that completed its six-month tenure last month is undoubtedly going to be the last, as the institution of a rotating presidency is scheduled to be replaced following adoption of the EU’s new constitutional arrangements. Before it even began, this presidency was considered by virtually everyone — friend and foe of Europe alike — as critical for the future of European integration and coherence. Now that the smoke has cleared (not only figuratively, but literally, given the anti-EU-summit mini-riot in Thessaloniki), it is still hard to discern the outlines of any concrete achievement by the presidency — but maybe the very lack of any accomplishment to speak of was the best that could have been expected under the circumstances of actually existing (which is to say, profoundly intimidated and, therefore, intellectually and politically paralyzed) Europe.

In the event, the presidency was declared a success, not only by the Greek government — which was, unsurprisingly, effusively complimentary about itself and ridiculously sanguine about what it had wrought (or not, as the case may be) — but by the rest of the EU’s members. The accession treaty, which ratified the Copenhagen agreement to add 10 new members to the union, was signed in Athens in a celebratory ceremony in which the deafening chorus of a bathetic dead-white-men hymnody to the “cradle of democracy” and the wellspring of Western civilization was strategically meant to cover the eerie silence of the graveyard of ideas that the Greek presidency was in fact. Of course, the Union did agree on a “draft” European constitution — or, rather, “constitutional treaty,” as its chief drafter, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, keeps insisting. At several hundred pages of the worst kind of bureaucratic Eurospeak, it is, at best, as the British say, a dog’s breakfast — and certainly not what the average citizen of Europe expected when M. Giscard and his colleagues were entrusted with the task of creating a “constitution for Europe.” We can only echo the terse verdict of Elmar Brok, a German member of the drafting convention and ardent proponent of European integration, who referred to the document as an “extraordinary disappointment.”

But there were other “successes” during the Greek presidency. A preliminary agreement on developing a European defense force was reached — but any details, such as timelines, funding, structure, responsibilities, or operational authority and autonomy (from NATO and the US obviously), were all left TBD. As for the EU’s infamous CAP (common agricultural policy), it was “reformed” for the umpteenth time, with the result being, of course, no essential reform at all. The ministers of agriculture agreed on the need for a complete overhaul of current policies — and then went home, leaving CAP, to echo The Economist, with “no change in the size of the…budget” ($58 billion), cereal prices at the same high levels, and a “reform” that doesn’t have to take effect until 2005 — and 2007 for les fermiers français (see The Economist leader, “Cap it all,” June 28-July 4).

There was, finally, acknowledgment of the need to integrate immigrants into the respective societies of the EU’s member-states, not to mention the need of some form of common immigration policy. Again, however, there were — and are — fundamental disagreements about what just such a policy should entail.

To be fair to Greece, its presidency did manage to maintain — or, more to the point, to have Europe return to — a civilized discourse. For anybody who thinks that is a picayune matter, the fireworks that ensued the very day of the Italian presidency’s inauguration — due to the country’s (unfortunately) irrepressible president, Silvio Berlusconi — prove quite the contrary. Indeed, Greek prime minister Costas Simitis’s famous reasonableness, rationality, and democratic ethos were on global display in the United States, where the concept of civilized discourse was introduced to Washington generally and to the Bush administration specifically, in what everybody termed as another grand “success”: the “rapprochement” between the EU and the United States.

What was — is? — the content of this “rapprochement”? If we knew, we’d say, but, like everybody else, we have no idea. What bothers us about the entire spectacle, however, is that, as Greeks and Europeans, we couldn’t help but hear Roman and Byzantine echoes in what transpired — or see imperial protocols of ages past, when contrite provincial governors betook themselves penitently to the Seat of Majesty to ask forgiveness for various transgressions and insubordination, perpetrated or imagined.

As far as real — current and future — EU-US relations are concerned, there were (at least) two glaring absences from the Greek presidency’s agenda. The first was a systematic, consistent, and coherent effort to promote a discussion of a united European policy toward the “ally” across the Atlantic. The second was an equally systematic, consistent, and coherent attempt to address the substance of the union’s relationship with the one and only hyperpower. Of course, there were discussions in Washington of the usual (American-defined) group of suspect issues: weapons of mass destruction, “rebuilding” Iraq, and fighting international terrorism. At a time, however, when the New York Times reports that French schoolchildren are not welcome in American homes, we suspect that there are actually fundamental issues of cultural (and, therefore, social and political) coexistence between Europe and the US that take priority — and whose resolution determines the resolution of all other issues because they are, in fact, the source of the increasing division between the two (dare we say it?) moral blocs.

The war in Iraq revealed a deep rift between Europe and the United States. This rift extends over a veritable universe of issues, including the economy, trade, defense, the environment, geopolitics, the most efficacious response to international terrorism, and, yes, international criminal justice generally. The way the European Union chooses to address its singular relationship with the United States will, in fact, fundamentally affect its future. It is puzzling, therefore, that such a critical matter did not receive the proper attention of the Greek presidency, and of Costas Simitis in particular, who understands all these issues much better than we do.

It’s too late now, of course; the only program on European TV for the next six months is the Silvio Berlusconi Show. Meanwhile, last week, Greek foreign minister George Papandreou expressed concern over an agreement signed by Washington and the republic of Macedonia that exempts Americans from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Was Mr. Papandreou rightly upset at the continuing — and flagrant and grotesque — US sabotage of the most important initiative in international criminal justice ever undertaken by the civilized world, and one in which, furthermore, the EU is especially and profoundly invested? Not exactly. He was exercised by the fact that the US referred to Macedonia as…Macedonia (as opposed to the inane FYROM). Now that’s what you call focus.

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