Under terrorist cloud, Medvedev, Merkel and Sarkozy meet for security summit

France, Deauville : French President Nicolas Sarkozy (C), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (L) give a press conferenceon October 19, 2010 (AFP Photo / Eric Feferberg)
President Dmitry Medvedev is in France for a two-day meeting with his German and French counterparts as Europe looks to revamp its security architecture amidst heightened security concerns.

Medvedev arrived in the seaside resort town of Deauville, France, on Monday where he joined French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for an informal dinner at a local restaurant. The cordial gathering was interspersed with laughter and several heart-felt toasts, according to event insiders, and provided a relaxed ice-breaker before the leaders get down to more serious business on Tuesday.

The creation of a monolithic “Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian security system,” as well as President Medvedev’s proposals for a new comprehensive treaty on European Security will dominate the summit's agenda, Russian presidential aide Sergey Prikhodko told reporters.

Prikhodko stressed that the meeting should not be confused as “an exclusive club” that makes decisions without the consent of other states.

"The trilateral meeting is not some kind on an exclusive club for working out of decisions separate from other states and international organizations,” the Kremlin presidential aide told Itar-Tass, “but a convenient format for juxtaposing the common vision in a confidential and frank atmosphere with our closest partners in Europe with which we have major co-operation."

New European Security Treaty?

Moscow has long been concerned with the soundness of the European security architecture, which it believes to be fundamentally flawed at the very foundation.

Indeed, it is not only Russian observers who believe the structure is top-heavy with American influence and institutions, which have their limitations in both understanding and pre-empting security threats across the Euro-Atlantic-Eurasian landmass. And with US troops hunkered down in Afghanistan and Iraq for the long haul, Moscow, as well as the other big European players see an opportunity for picking up some slack in the security chain.

Earlier this month, Medvedev reiterated his proposal for a new European Security Pact, first floated back in April 2009, to replace existing security and problem-solving mechanisms in Europe.

"Europe is not only the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is not only the European Union," Medvedev said in Nicosia on October 7 after talks with Cyprus President Demetris Christofias during a one-day visit to the Mediterranean island.

Medvedev added that there are no viable Russian-European institutions for in-depth problem-solving.

"Existing mechanisms in international pacts and institutions are not effective and are not binding. Security in Europe is tailored to pacts, either NATO or the European Union or other organizations," the Russian president told a group of reporters.

Just one year ago many political pundits scoffed at the idea of a Russian-anchored European security system. Today, however, the vision looks to be much more of a reality.

First, the threat of an Islamic terror wave crashing across Europe, although certainly exaggerated by a sensationalized, semi-hysterical media, does carry some weight in the European capitals.

Just this weekend, Saudi intelligence warned of a possible terror threat from Al-Qaeda against Europe, particularly in France, Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said.

He said Sunday the warning of a potential attack was received "in the last few hours, few days."

European officials were informed that "Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was doubtless active or envisioned being active" on the "European continent, notably France," Hortefeux said during a joint television and radio interview.

"The threat is real," he told RTL-LCI-Le Figaro's weekly talk show. There was no indication if the threat was made on account of the three-way meeting.

Second, France is grappling with something of an identity problem as it attempts to assimilate millions of Arab immigrants, many of them second generation youths who have become disaffected and marginalized throughout the country. Meanwhile, the ongoing debate on banning religious symbols – for example, Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps and Islamic headscarves – in public places has only aggravated the polarizing issue.

Yet it is not only outcast immigrants on the periphery of French society that are giving the French government a headache. On the opening day of the trilateral meeting, masked youths took to the streets and clashed with police, setting fires in cities across France. The social unrest, however, had nothing to do with religion or terrorism. Individuals from all walks of French society – from train workers to university students – are protesting a proposed hike in the retirement age to 62.

Sarkozy, who is known for his no-nonsense approach to public disorder, pledged to crack down on "troublemakers" as clashes between youth and police fanned out across the country, saying he would ensure that "public order is guaranteed." The protests have caused massive traffic jams, left motorists without gasoline and canceled hundreds of flights.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Angelina Merkel provoked a media storm at the weekend when she said that Germany’s experiment with multiculturalism has “utterly failed.”

Such sentiments were first raised by Thilo Sarrazin, a former central banker, who recently published a book that is critical of Turkish and Arabic immigrants, as well as Germany’s Jewish community.

In his book, "Germany Abolishes Itself", Sarrazin argues that Muslim immigrants in Europe refuse to integrate into Western societies and that all Jews "share a certain gene" that differentiates them from others. Originally sparking a storm of controversy in Germany, opinion polls revealed an overwhelming majority of Germans backed his views. Suddenly, the political calculus in the country had radically changed, seemingly overnight.

Seeing that public opinion demanded a hard-line stance against loose immigration policies, Merkel, who has become very astute at adjusting her sails to the political winds, made a surprise shift to the right.

“This multicultural approach,” Merkel told a rally of the youth wing of her Christian Democratic Union, “saying that we simply live side by side and are happy about each other, this approach has failed, utterly failed.”

Indeed, a recent survey suggested that more than 30 per cent of Germans agreed with the statement that the country was "overrun by foreigners," a sentiment that is slowly moving across the Continent.

The study, organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation think-tank, also showed that about the same number thought that Germany's immigrants or people with foreign backgrounds had come to the country for its social benefits.

The immigration issue, however, does not strike a nerve amongst Russians as it does with Europeans [This tweet just in from the Russian President: We've agreed that together with France and Germany we will draft a roadmap for transitioning to visa-free travel between Russia and the EU.]  

Presently, a workable visa regime between Russia and the former Soviet countries, mostly in Central Asia, provides Russia’s large metropolitan areas – most notably Moscow – with an ample supply of foreign workers without necessarily aggravating tensions (Although Russia continues to fight against the scourge of racist attacks against minority groups, several high-profile court cases against skinhead groups – which witnessed severe penalties handed down by the courts – seems to have controlled the situation, at least for the moment).

On other fronts

For many Russians, memories of hostilities with Georgia in August 2008 – when much of the Western media was siding with Tbilisi even before the dust had settled – left the indelible impression that not only was it wrong that Russia was not better represented in the Western world, it was simply dangerous. After all, who will listen to and report Russia's side of the story the next time it attempts to defend itself from outside attack? This question is becoming more immediate, especially with the unpredictable government of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili itching for NATO membership.

Under such circumstances, it becomes easier to understand why Moscow remains suspicious about the US missile defense shield for Eastern Europe, for example, at a time when such knee-jerk reactions to Russia continue to dominate the minds of Western diplomats, experts and “Sovietologists” who cannot shake off their Cold War chills.

Given all of these concerns, in Moscow, as well as in Berlin and Paris, it is imperative that Europe and Russia put the past behind them and hammer out a truly workable security plan that everybody can believe in.

The last issue involves a question that has come to dominate all international meetings: What to do about Iran and its (possible) nuclear weapon ambitions?

Russia, France and Germany will continue to abide by the principles adopted earlier in relation to Iran, President Dmitry Medvedev said after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"We agreed that we will abide by those approaches that had been adopted. On the one hand these are sanctions, on the other hand we will move Iran to co-operate on all issues," he said.

Finally, Medvedev described the summit in Deauville as "very useful," stressing that "this is an open, sincere, calm and friendly format for discussing any issues."

"We have a similar position on many problems," he said.

Robert Bridge, RT