Old Europe's empty defense gesture.

Old Europe's empty defense gesture.

Old Europe's empty defense gesture.

What the foreign papers are saying.
May 1 2003 7:28 AM

Europe's Empty Gesture

" 'Old Europe' threw down the gauntlet at the feet of Britain, the United States and the Atlantic Alliance" Tuesday, said London's Daily Telegraph, after the leaders of France, Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg announced plans to create a new European defense force to be headquartered near Brussels. The "mini-summit" was intended to "create a stronger military policy to underpin the European Union's common foreign and security policy," said the Financial Times, but if it becomes a reality, the force "could ultimately rival Nato and lead to a clash with the US." The Guardian declared, "Overall, the outcome was symbolic enough to annoy the summiteers' many critics while failing to mark significant progress of any kind." (For more on the proposals, see this Q and A from the London Times.)

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.

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France's Libération, which was generally supportive of the project, admitted the timing could have been better. "It will look like a new sign of distrust toward the United States at a time when the guns are barely silent in Iraq," especially given the four participants' anti-war activism. Le Monde used the occasion to attack the British prime minister for his loyalty to the United States and his rejection of the summit's goals: Tony Blair believes "the European Union must side with the United States, especially in times of serious international crisis. This is far removed from the ambitions of countries like France, which seek to strengthen Europe in order to act as a counterbalance to Washington's hegemonic desires."

In Germany, Frankfurter Rundschau hailed the start of "a new defense-policy era in Europe. … The meeting's political message leaves no room for others to avoid the question of what this community really wants to be in the world: a vassal or a partner." Süddeutsche Zeitung found the summit declaration "relatively sensible and logical," but wished there had been more participants: "What symbolic power it could have had if not only four but all six European founding states had made an appearance." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said it was "an open question" whether the four had strengthened the European pillar of NATO, as they intended, or if "they were swinging a wrecking ball" instead. (German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

Although Russia and EU member Greece supported the "gang of four," most of the "coalition of the willing" opposed the plan. The FT reported that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told a Senate committee that what is needed from Europe is "more military capability, not more headquarters." A NATO spokesman fretted that a new military command could lead to duplication of efforts.

For the London Times' foreign editor, the summit was "a gesture of independence … part of a trend towards small pacts between a few like-minded allies, rather than broad multi-national ones. It has echoes in the stalling of world trade talks and, of course, in challenges to the United Nations." A Times editorial denounced the meeting as "either one of the most intellectually confused or instead politically dishonest meetings conducted by EU nations." The paper reported that while the United States spends more than 3 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, and Britain and France 2.5 percent of GDP, most of Europe (with the exception of Greece) spends much less: Germany 1.5 percent, Belgium 1.3 percent, and Luxembourg 0.8 percent.

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It was those spending patterns that led Spain's ABC to dismiss the summit as an empty gesture—"a toast to the sun." The editorial noted: "The absence of an independent, capable, effective, deterring, balanced European pillar of defense isn't an accident. For decades, Europe has relied on the United States, on the deployment of its troops, its military innovation, and the certainty that it would assume the principal risks should it be necessary." Cuts in defense spending across Europe have been a popular success, but citizens "are now insufficiently sensitized to the risks and threats" they face. Now these four countries have called for measures that will require expenditures, "but the inability of France and Germany to control their galloping public deficits … makes the proposal a mere expression of intentions that is impossible to achieve in practice." It concluded, "Even supposing—and it is supposing a lot—that France and Germany achieve their objectives, how effective could they be without the support of Great Britain, Spain, Italy, or Hungary?"