Europe’s newspapers welcomed news that a French-led European Union force of 1,400 will head for the Democratic Republic of Congo this weekend to try to avert further bloodletting. Gruesome stories of dismemberment, rape, and ritual cannibalism at the hands of rival ethnic militias and looters continue to emerge from the war-torn Central African nation. Fighting broke out last month after Ugandan troops pulled out of the town of Bunia as part of a peace accord, and rival Lendu and Hema tribes fought for control of the town, sparking fears of another Rwanda-style genocide. (See this “International Papers” column from May 16 for more on the Congolese conflict.) Reports of atrocities continued even after the U.N. Security Council authorized the peacekeeping force last Friday. For the hundreds of civilians who have died so far, the move comes as too little, too late; but European papers are hailing the dispatch of EU forces as a historic occasion, marking the first time troops have been deployed under the Brussels flag outside Europe and without NATO help.
The peacekeeping mission is seen as an important test of whether the European Union can manage its own “rapid reaction force” and develop closer integration of defense and security issues, one of the objectives of the ongoing constitutional convention in Brussels. Britain’s Independent wrote that London’s backing of the initiative underlines the “thaw in Anglo-French relations since the diplomatic rift over Iraq.” In Germany, Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung lamented the fact that Germany was not able to play a greater role. “There is clearly something wrong with the structure of a 300,000-strong army if it becomes stretched to the limit when it has 10,000 of its members deployed abroad,” the paper wrote. (Translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.) Frankfurter Rundschau, meanwhile, compared the decision favorably with the U.S. action in Iraq. The EU showed “that a serious crisis can be tackled quickly and efficiently while at the same time obeying international law,” the paper wrote. Belgium’s Grenz-Echo supported the move but called attention to Belgium’s embarrassing colonial legacy and said that direct clashes between locals and Belgian soldiers should be avoided. (Translations via Deutsche Welle radio.)
The United States has long urged European countries to step up defense spending. Czech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik resigned for good (after previously resigning then retracting) late last week over what he said was a stingy defense budget. Prague’s Mlada Fronta Dnes yesterday wrote that his successor is already making a wish list of things he won’t be able to afford. With the country’s defense budget slashed by 20 percent, the paper said the Czech army will soon having trouble paying for tanks and cannons. In related news, Slovak President Rudolf Schuster sounded alarm Tuesday about his country’s lack of readiness for air combat, Czech news agency CTK reported (via Radio Free Europe). Slovakia has just three MiG-29 fighters ready to enter the field, with 18 grounded for repairs. Schuster also said many pilots have not logged the enough flight time to be ready for battle. (The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, while Slovakia is set to join in the next wave of expansion.)
On Wednesday and Thursday, most big European dailies led with news of Bush’s dual summits in Aqaba, Jordan, and Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. “A territory they can call home,” read the top-of-the-fold headline in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, while the Guardian asked: “A bold stride along the road to peace—or a footnote to history?” Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung remained skeptical about the outcome of Bush’s peace initiative. The paper wrote that the plan “provide[s] an impulse for pluralistic and democratic government in the entire region,” but it said the Sharm el-Sheik summit would have had better prospects if more Arab countries had been included, rather than just traditional American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain. “There would be a better chance of success, and the meeting’s credibility would be greater, if representatives from Syria and Lebanon attended. As it is, it will be easy for extremists to dismiss the Western delegates as intriguers, abetted by their willing partners,” the paper wrote. (Translation courtesy of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.)
In France, many papers simply didn’t come out Tuesday, as the nation’s public-sector workers staged another two-day walkout to protest Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s pension reform plan. While left-leaning Libération and L’Humanité supported the strike, Le Figaro ran an editorial on its Web site slamming union leaders: “No one can say that the proposals took them by surprise, except, of course, the trade unions. They are the ones who are chiefly to blame for the current crisis. They should be lobbying for better pension conditions in France, yet they seem to be totally bereft of a strategy.” (French translations via the Guardian.) On Thursday, Le Monde wrote that the labor action, which began earlier this month, shows no sign of weakening. (Translation courtesy of Radio France Internationale’s press review, which throws in a quip of its own, noting the appearance of Johnny Halliday, the soon-to-be-60 French singer, on the cover of “staid and stodgy, seriously right-wing” French daily Le Figaro. “At least he’s one French pensioner that the Raffarin government won’t be able to force into a life of penury,” RFI wrote.)