A sombre spring By Shada Islam - Saturday 26th March 2011

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/26/a-sombre-spring.html

THE sun is shining, the weather is warmer and the flowers are beginning to bloom. It’s finally spring in Europe. We have had the traditional boisterous carnivals, people have shed their winter clothes and we’re all looking forward to weekends spent outdoors, instead of hiding from the sleet and rain.
But take a closer look and it’s clear that the sunny skies mask a pervasive gloom. As I made my way to work the other day, thousands of protesters urging an end to Europe-wide austerity measures marched through Brussels while European Union leaders met amid high security in a building nearby. Police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse the groups of demonstrators close to the EU summit, after activists blocked key roads in the city and caused a traffic gridlock.
Trade unions are calling on people to challenge EU leaders’ moves to commit governments to a new ‘Euro pact’ that would seek to moderate wages to make Europe’s economy more competitive in the global market.
Only hours earlier, Portugal’s prime minister, Jose Socrates, had stepped down after parliament rejected his government’s latest austerity measures aimed at avoiding EU financial assistance. And at the summit itself, the 27 EU leaders struggled to patch up their differences over the military campaign against Libya. It’s no easier of course in North Africa or the Middle East. But while the ‘Arab Spring’ is about people’s
aspirations finally coming to the fore, spring 2011 in Europe is proving to be a more sombre affair.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel faces tough elections in Baden-W├╝erttemberg, a state her conservative party has ruled since 1953. At the same time, Ms Merkel’s announcement of a three-month suspension, pending safety checks, of plans to prolong German nuclear plants’ lifetimes by more than a decade, have run into strong opposition, with critics accusing her of a knee-jerk reaction to the nuclear catastrophe in Japan.
An array of rivals, including far-right leader Marine Le Pen, are giving French President Nicolas Sarkozy a run for his money ahead of national elections next year. And in Brussels, there is still much hand-wringing over Europe’s failure to put up a united front on historic changes taking place in its southern neighbourhood. The resignation of Portugal’s premier cast a sombre shadow over the EU summit, with several EU states insisting that the bloc could come to Portugal’s rescue if the crisis-hit caretaker government asks for financial assistance. But Pedro Passos Coelho, the head of Portugal’s main opposition centre-right Social Democratic party, has said he hopes the debt-ravaged country could avoid calling in a EU bailout.
European leaders are struggling to ring-fence the fragile eurozone against market attack and the insolvency of weaker members by establishing a permanent 700bn euro bailout fund for the single-currency area. Most analysts expect Portugal to become the third eurozone country — following Greece and Ireland — to ask for a bailout. Meanwhile, in neighboring Spain, the government is preparing new economic reforms amid speculation that like Portugal it may soon have to seek an international bailout.
Europe’s political travails are no less massive. The bloc has hemmed and hawed over the correct response to Arab demands for more democracy despite years spent preaching the virtues of people’s power and human rights to the region. The crisis in Libya and similar trouble brewing in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain — not to mention the Ivory Coast — appear to have dealt a body blow to the EU’s dream of having a common foreign and security policy. As Nato prepares to take over responsibility for monitoring the no-fly zone over Libya, the lack of EU unity over the military campaign is striking.
As it did during the 2003 US-led action against Iraq, Germany has decided to sit this one out. But unlike the situation eight years ago, France is backing military action and German public opinion does not appear too impressed with the country’s stance. France, meanwhile, has
angered Turkey with comments by its interior minister Claude Gueant which described the action against Libya as a ‘crusade’.
Turkey had insisted that Nato should have sole control of all military operations in Libya, reflecting the deep distrust and antipathy felt in Ankara towards President Sarkozy who opposes Turkish members of the EU. Giving a victory to Ankara, late on Thursday night, Nato clinched a deal allowing the alliance to take control of the operation in Libya. According to officials, the compromise deal would involve an Afghanistan-style model, based on Nato command and control, with other coalition countries involved in the political oversight of the operation. Command will be under an ‘Isaf-style’ structure, comprised of permanent Nato representatives and ambassadors from non-Nato countries. The International Security Assistance Force was set up in 2001 in Afghanistan to the lead the military intervention in the country.
Nato took over the Isaf mission in 2003, The US insistence on ending flights over Libya is a key part of the Obama administration’s argument that it is not being sucked into an intractable war. The deal is a defeat for Sarkozy who has been resisting Nato control of the operation since French jets launched the attack a week ago.
But even more, the Nato decision is a blow to the EU’s once-upon-a-time ambitions to nurture a European defence force capable of undertaking peacemaking and peacekeeping ambitions worldwide. Indeed a sombre spring for Europe.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

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