How leaders played into the anarchists’ hands

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Series Details Vol.7, No.25, 21.6.01, p5
Publication Date 21/06/2001
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Date: 21/06/01

By Craig Winneker

Summit? What summit? Even before its official start last Friday and throughout its two-and-a-half day course, the midsummer European Council in Göteborg was eclipsed by other events.

Irish voters did their bit to spoil hopes that the gathering would be the crowning achievement of the Swedish EU presidency by voting 'no' to the Nice Treaty - thus casting a long shadow over efforts to build momentum for enlargement of the Union.

Then George W. Bush came to town with the White House media circus in tow and, in a better-than-expected performance on his first trip abroad, out-shined his EU counterparts with a surprising display of leadership that included only a few verbal gaffes.

Finally it was the anti-globalisation anarchist road-show, which stormed Sweden in a mass of balaclava-wearing, cobblestone-throwing, sloganeering protesters and left behind a casualty list that included three people shot, dozens injured and millions of euro in property damage.

Somewhere between Bush's broken English and Göteborg's broken glass EU leaders met to discuss the future of the Union. The press, sequestered along with them in the soundproofed, fluorescent caverns of the Svenska Massan conference centre, scrambled to find a story hidden in the often Byzantine negotiations over enlargement and sustainable development.

The eventual 'news' out of the summit had something to do with the EU reaffirming that the enlargement "roadmap is a framework". But mixed metaphors are no match for TV footage of destruction and mayhem, or for headlines about police shooting rock-throwing anarchists. The only glimpse most reporters would get of what was occurring outside the summit's secure perimeter was when they would gather around a TV set to sip a free coffee or low-alcohol beer.

The Swedes, and especially their burly, stoic prime minister, Göran Persson, seemed genuinely shocked that such chaos could break out in their normally peaceful country.

At a tense stand-off between police and protesters on the campus of Göteborg University late on Friday night, one local man personified the need to balance grand European schemes with more parochial concerns - the same dilemma that faced the Irish government earlier this month and that vexes Union policymakers every day. "This is my drug," the man said, holding out a tin of chewing tobacco, then putting a pinch of it in his mouth. "It's illegal in the EU. "

His personal beef with the European experiment notwithstanding, even a somewhat tipsy Swede could grasp the importance of the occasion and echoed the view of his own prime minister on the rioting. "Those people in the Massan [for the summit], they are elected. These people," he slurred, pointing at the surrounded protesters, "should go back to their countries and vote. They are mostly Norwegians and Danes. "

It turned out that while a good number of the protesters were indeed bussed in from other countries, most were in fact Swedes concerned about a loss of sovereignty to the Union. Most were peaceful, marching in their Birkenstocks and carrying their baby backpacks and banners. Dominating the headlines, though, were the black-hooded hooligans who turn up at every one of these multilateral gatherings. "These are criminals," a visibly shaken Margot Wallström told European Voice on a street corner near the secure summit area. The environment chief, Sweden's lone member of the European Commission, had a chance on Friday to survey the damage on the streets of Göteborg. "This is so sad because I know that they did not want violence," she said, referring to the thousands of protesters from NGOs and anti-globalisation groups who came to demonstrate outside the barricades. "If they are serious they have to make a very clear statement that they detest this behaviour. "

The scene in the normally quaint harbour town was beyond surreal. All along Göteborg's main retail boulevard, shattered glass crunched under the feet of residents, many of whom dared to come out after the violence for a sunny stroll and a look at the destruction.

What they saw were anti-capitalist slogans spray-painted across bank machines and fast-food restaurants (the bacon-double-cheeseburger having apparently become the ultimate symbol of imperialist repression); dozens of empty shipping containers turned into massive metal crowd-control barricades, blocking off key intersections; hundreds of bewildered and tired Swedish 'polis' in riot gear.

To a large extent, both the summiteers and the media were guilty of playing into the hands of the protesters. From about Friday afternoon on, nobody talked about much of anything except the rioting. And even as they downplayed the significance of the dissidents' message, EU leaders nevertheless spent a lot time engaging it.

In a spirited press conference, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair angrily belittled the aims of the protesers, calling them an "anarchist travelling circus". While his performance was impressive, it only served to draw even more attention to the marginal issues. Blair spent precisely one minute during the conference talking about the substantive outcome of the summit itself.

Sweden's Persson confirmed the problem even as early as Friday afternoon, when the summiteering had only just begun. "This is something for me that almost overshadows the results of this meeting," he said in a typical Scandinavian understatement. This assessment would only prove more true as each hour passed and the destruction mounted.

By Sunday Göteborg was already getting back to normal. Clean-up efforts were under way and the town even hosted a previously scheduled bicycle race. Locals and tourists alike sat at outdoor cafés and drank iced coffee amid the shattered glass. EU leaders, and especially the incoming Belgian presidency, are left with the task of picking up the real pieces from Göteborg: overcoming the Irish no, fleshing out the sustainable development strategy, addressing the democratic deficit and preparing for the next anarchic outburst.

It was Persson who best described the challenges that lie ahead - not just for any multilateral organisation hoping to meet without igniting violent (not to mention distracting) protests, but also for an EU struggling with growing pains. Said the Swedish prime minister in a fitting epilogue to his EU presidency: "We just have to be a little bit more realistic about the world we are living in. "

Feature on the European Council, Gothenburg, 15-16 June 2001.

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