Kosovo crisis mars Europe's day

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 May, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 May, 1999, 12:00am

AS Brussels celebrates Europe Day today, the echoes of the conflict in Kosovo must add a bitter note to the party, bringing a reminder of not just what unity has achieved in the past four decades but also the work that lies ahead.

The scenes of ethnic cleansing and pitiful lines of refugees; of civilian victims of anonymous bombing raids; of mass murder and mass destruction - these bring back to Europeans the ghosts of their brutal past.

It is too easy to forget that the Europe which embarked on the road to integration was then a shambolic wreck, destroyed by its wanton pursuit of naked interests.

Europe Day marks a speech by French foreign minister Robert Schuman on May 9, 1950, in which he proposed that Germany and France, and any other European country that wished to, should pool their economic resources. This dry initiative had dramatic consequences.

'The idea being to eliminate the sources of friction between these countries that had been at war for so many hundreds of years and eliminate the causes of rivalry and create the foundations for peace, and also prosperity,' said Etienne Reuter, the European Commission representative in Hong Kong.

'One must remember that from the wreckage of World War II everybody was left in tatters . . . The totalitarian Nazi regime had pretty much abolished all concepts of human rights and human dignity and freedom, and of course in 1950 you were also threatened in the east by a communist totalitarian state that wanted to do the same thing.' The devastation and dislocation of Europe's economies is difficult to exaggerate. Britain was technically bankrupt. Even neutral countries had seen their markets disappear and economies atrophy.

Across the Atlantic, the picture was also uncertain. Undersecretary for economic affairs William Clayton was frank: 'Let us admit right off that our objective has as its background the needs and interests of the people of the United States. We need markets - big markets - in which to buy and sell.' That objective was to get Europe on its feet. But not the old Europe, whose internecine wars had developed a nasty tendency to drag the rest of the world with them.

The Marshall Plan, which channelled billions of dollars of US capital for European reconstruction, marked a turning point in two ways. First it was decided Europe should find its own remedy. Second, US aid would be made not on bilateral terms, but co-ordinated on a Europe-wide basis. Resources were directed to key sectors like coal, electricity and steel. This was to be the core of later plans for union - the first European Union body was the Coal and Steel Community.

From the early beginnings, the roots of political and economic co-operation spread through the fabric of European society until today they are an indivisible part.

'The European Union is based on the idea of pooling parts of your sovereignty to a common institution. Member states were giving up something,' Mr Reuter said.

AS the European Union develops, it moves on two fronts: enlargement and consolidation. It is these that will define its future. Agreements already exist with a cluster of ex-communist countries, providing preferential trade terms as a kind of half-way house. A future EU could double in size to 30 members, with only Russia remaining aloof.

Yet the problems faced by Germany after unification are a useful signpost to the implications of enlargement. Against the backdrop of Kosovo, this debate grows more and more vital.

'The Secretary-General of the United Nations said to the Europeans that it's much better to have the [Balkan] people inside the union - and to then take the steps for developing them economically - than to leave them out in the cold and vulnerable,' Mr Reuter said.

But the EU is more than a passport to a Western, democratic lifestyle. Even for relatively advanced Poland or Hungary, sudden free-market entry would be disastrous for their out-dated industries.

'To have them in faster means the old member states have to show a certain generosity, and what we have seen very often is that those who promote with some strength the notion that enlargement should be speeded up balk at the idea that they should pay for this,' Mr Reuter said.

So if the union cannot fix the trouble at its borders, what can it offer? 'The conflicts we have had in the Balkans for nearly 10 years have highlighted the merit and purpose of the EU,' Mr Reuter said.

'In an ideal world, if one could get the Serbs and the Croats and the Albanians to work together as we got the French and the Germans to work together, this could be a recipe. But you must realise this is not something you can impose at the stroke of a pen.' Meanwhile, the EU grapples with conflicting urges.

'One is the importance of values - such as human rights, democracy, freedoms, the respect of the dignity of man - as a policy goal, and the notion that you can enforce that outside your own border,' Mr Reuter said.

On the other hand it is clear even the most noble foreign policy must be based on 'good old Realpolitik'.

As Prussia's Frederick the Great put it: 'Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.' In this respect, the EU is several violins short of an orchestra.

Fifty years ago, these countries shook the world in war. Today, they cannot quell unrest in a tiny province.

It is not that they are frugal on defence spending. Together they spend about two-thirds as much as the US, though, as Mr Reuter said: 'Spending money doesn't necessarily mean an efficient defence capability. At this stage the European defence concepts are premature. We don't have the resources, the experience, the military clout to do something like is now being done in Kosovo.' THERE has also been a reluctance to make any commitment, fuelled in part by past mistakes.

Mistakes like Srebrenica in 1995, where trapped Dutch peace-keepers watched helplessly as Serbs massacred thousands of Muslims. Without a capacity to solve problems close to home, it is unlikely Europe will play a global policing role for some time.

'One feels there is a growing responsibility for the welfare of mankind, but before that translates into other efforts I think people will wish to see how the Kosovo affair ends,' Mr Reuter said.

For now, he said, it was important that a culture of generosity be nurtured. Generosity is a word he uses often, and it seems to lie at the core of his concept of what it means to be a good European and of what makes a good foreign policy.

And a good trade policy.

'Trade is still inherently done with a protectionist approach and we still have to move towards a culture where in world trade there's a certain generosity,' he said.

It is in the field of trade policies that the EU is able to flex its bulging muscles. While Washington plays the global policeman, Brussels can play its part in developing the world trading system.

Mr Reuter rejected the notion that the US uses its military might to impose its will in trade issues.

'We think we are in a partnership where the main players are equal,' he said.

But relations are still strained, to say the least.

Following a spat over bananas, they are squaring up over a host of other issues including aircraft noise and hormones in beef.

For the fledgling World Trade Organisation (WTO) these rows could hardly come at a worse time. As if the work of China's accession to the group were not enough, the 134 members are embroiled in a debate over who should be the next director-general.

At the core of the WTO row was the issue of whether someone from the developing world could take the helm.

The attempt by the US to block Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi has done little for its reputation.

Similarly, there is growing frustration at the WTO talks between Beijing and Washington.

'We were very pleased with what [Premier Zhu Rongji] put on the table at Washington, and we feel almost that this was very much a missed opportunity,' Mr Reuter said.

Differences aside, he disputes the view that the US and Europe offer two competing models for the developing world.

He sees a way through the problems, or at least has enough faith to believe that there is a way.

Perhaps this is a legacy of Western Europe's efforts to heal itself, bringing 50 years of continuous peace for the first time in its history.

There are more workaday benefits of unity too: mobility of labour; chances to study abroad; the right to travel unimpeded through a territory the size of the US; the common currency.

'All these things have been achieved that you couldn't think of before,' Mr Reuter said.

'Now you find a German and a Brit travelling on a plane, and this time around they are on the same side.' Quite an achievement.



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