The EU Gang of Four – Part II

Belgium provided the locale for this week’s meeting of the German, French, Belgian, and Luxembourgian heads of state to discuss the new European defense initiative. What do the Belgian papers have to say?

De Standaard emphasizes the tentative nature of what was achieved at the meeting in Brussels. Where the “Gang of Four” seemed to go over the line was in discussions over a European military headquarters – separate from NATO headquarters in Brussels/Mons. But Germany didn’t want any definitive decisions on this topic, so the conference’s final communiqué only specified that “the decision to create such a [headquarters] capacity with all interested states can be taken at the end of the year, with an eye towards establishing it in Tervuren [a city in Belgium] in the summer of 2004.” In other words, the four states merely decided to decide later, and in the meantime there will be extensive consultations with other EU member-states to try to recruit them to the idea, starting with the meeting of EU foreign ministers coming up this weekend, and going on to the regularly-scheduled EU summit scheduled for Thessaloniki in mid-June. Reporter Bernard Bulcke also described Washington’s dismissive reaction to the meeting, reporting that Colin Powell “laughed away” what was going on while testifying before Congress, speaking of “some sort of plan about some sort of headquarters.”

In Het Belang van Limburg Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt is quoted as stating “This [meeting] is an important break-through,” and the article enumerates the seven “concrete initiatives” that were agreed upon, among which the establishment in 2004 of a European command for strategic air transport, the creation of a common European NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) defense capacity, and the establishment of a European center for military education. But, again, what was important was gaining further supporters for these proposals from other members of the EU, in order to make them reality – as well as influencing the on-going European Convention for a new EU “constitution,” since a defense component was also something that needed to be built in to that document.

That same newspaper’s Erick Donckier, however, labeled the whole affair a mere “election stunt” for Premier Verhofstadt, who faces nationwide elections within a month. One “important” international meeting and final communiqué follows another, and the impression is created of great activity, but in the end little changes. That will also be true of this meeting he maintains, because its attendees represent only a few of the EU states and they must gather much wider support for their proposals from among many fellow EU members, among which Britain, who are deeply hostile to them.

On the other side of the Belgian linguistic divide, La Libre Belgique confirms that this “mini-summit” of the four was indeed an initiative of Guy Verhofstadt. It maintains that the chief objection to it among fellow EU states is that such an initiative could lead to a “multi-speed Europe” in defense, in which the four attending nations do not in fact seek approval from the Union’s remaining members but instead set up their own organization within the Union and simply exclude those other states who do not agree, even though Verhofstad afterwards explicitly rejected any idea of a “small closed club.” The “mini-summit” at least gained the approval of the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who, although he did not attend, was content to see in it that which Chirac, Schröder, Verhofstadt, and Juncker were insisting all along it was all about, namely merely about unifying and strengthening the European contribution to its own defense through NATO.

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