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Home > Special Topics > Europe Report Last Updated: 15:16 03/09/2007
Europe Report #73: March 18, 2004

The Sound of Silence Unites Europe

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

On Monday, millions of European across the continent observed a three-minute silence in remembrance of the many hundreds of victims killed and injured by the horrific Madrid train bombings. For a few brief minutes, the many different peoples who make up the patchwork of European nations were united in deep sorrow and utter revulsion. Momentarily, there was a strong sense of genuine European oneness. It felt as if some good had arisen out of the great evil that had been visited upon the innocent people of Madrid.

From Aberdeen to Athens, from Zagreb to Zurich, millions of people paused to reflect on the terrible tragedy that left 201 people dead and another 1,500 injured. The Madrid attack was one of the worst acts of terrorism Europe has witnessed since WWII.

Railway stations, schools, shops, TV channels, bus terminals, factories, government offices, companies, radio broadcasters, all fell still as silence briefly descended. This short moment of togetherness demonstrated that when there is a common thread to bind them, the people of the entire continent can willingly unite. The feeling offered a shocked Europe a much needed ray of hope.

Sadly, this sense of togetherness was only fleeting and soon the regular volume of European life reasserted itself. The rapid return to normality was especially noticeable in the political arena. The silence had barely dissipated before the dissenting voice of the continent's newest leader was being broadcast across the airwaves.

The locus of disharmony converged on the incoming Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. His target was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the strongest supporter of President George W. Bush's pre-emptive war policy.

Mr. Zapatero, who now unexpectedly finds himself thrust into office, is a passionate opponent of the Iraq War. He seems determined to vent some of his pent up anger at the continent's number one proponent of the policy.

In the first full day of media interviews since his party's sensational unset victory, Mr. Zapatero sharply contrasted his position with that of the outgoing prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, who was a close ally of Prime Minister Blair and President Bush.

Mr. Zapatero told Spain's Cadena Ser radio, "The war has been a disaster. The occupation continues to be a disaster. It has only generated violence." He added, "The Spanish troops in Iraq will come home." He went on to say, "Wars such as those which have occurred in Iraq only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate."

His deep-seated anti-war beliefs emboldened him enough to offer some advice to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair about their justification for going to war. He told them that they "need to engage in some self-criticism." He then added, "You can't organize a war on the basis of lies."

The British and American leaders restrained themselves from responding to the criticisms and instead concentrated on the need for unity in the fight against terrorism. As if responding to this call, the next day France and Germany, two of the fiercest opponents of the Iraq conflict, tried to reassert a sense of unity and draw a line under the Iraq issue.

The French and German leaders spoke at a joint press conference in Paris, stressing the need for Europe to draft a joint plan to fight terrorism together. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder warned, "All of Europe is a theatre for terrorist actions."

The leaders also stressed that the international community must work together to combat the terrorist menace. President Jacques Chirac summed up the global task by simply saying, "Rally together to fight terrorism." Both men underlined the paramount need for international unity.

Their message offered real hope as the leaders honestly sought to ease the tensions caused by the controversial war in Iraq. Their powerful call for unity softened the aggressive stance taken by Mr. Zapatero. If he hopes to improve the international situation, he will have to learn like other leaders before him that consensus, not confrontation, is the only viable strategy.

Mr. Zapatero's heartfelt criticisms of Washington and London aside, it now seems that the bitter divisions generated by the Iraq conflict are finally beginning to fade as leaders of all political persuasions and hues come to realize that when threatened by a merciless foe, the only option is unity. If the devastating bombings can teach Europe's leaders this lesson, then something constructive will have emerged out of wreckage of Madrid.

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