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EU: Solana Leaves NATO To Take Up New Challenges

  • Breffni O'Rourke

NATO's outgoing secretary-general is moving to a new job at the European Union. It's a move with major implications for the union -- if Javier Solana can carve the necessary place for himself in the bureaucratic jungle. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke examines the opportunities and pitfalls.

Brussels, 6 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Javier Solana left his post as secretary-general of NATO today, and will soon take up his new position as the European Union's first high representative for foreign and security policy. During his four-year term at NATO, the 57-year-old Spanish diplomat capably steered the Western alliance through some extremely difficult moments, notably the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia over Kosovo.

In joining the EU bureacracy, he is moving only a few kilometers across Brussels, from NATO's flag-bedecked headquarters in Evere to the "European quarter" of the city around the Rue de la Loi. Short the journey may be, but foreign policy experts see his arrival in the next few weeks as likely to have an enormous impact on the EU's profile in the world.

In his new job, Solana must harness the often-conflicting views of all 15 EU states, forging from them strong policies to advance the foreign and security interests of the EU as a whole. This means he is both servant and master of the national governments. A senior analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, John Palmer, puts it this way:

"Some people would think it is practically the most ambitious move which has yet been attempted in the European Union, even in some ways more ambitious than the successful launch of the single currency."

Palmer says such a level of political harmonization was unthinkable just a few years ago, given the long traditions EU countries have of maintaining their own foreign and defense policies. But harmonization is happening now, he says, because even the largest EU member states realize that they can achieve very little by acting alone.

"I think across the European Union, governments now recognize that in many, many areas the only effective basis for action is a common foreign and security policy, and that without it, Europe will remain on the sidelines. That was the bitter lesson learned in the tragedy of the Bosnian war, and until very late in the day in Kosovo."

As Solana is coming directly from NATO, where his diplomatic skills and determination are much admired, he is in the best position to strengthen the EU's relations with the United States and other NATO members, including the Central and Eastern European countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic). Washington is encouraging the Europeans to improve their own defense capabilities and coordination to better deal with events like Kosovo. In that conflict, the Europeans were reliant on advanced U.S. military technology.

To achieve all his goals, however, Solana will need to show formidable personal authority. Not only must he establish sway over EU governments accustomed to making their own policy, but he must find his place in the EU structures themselves.

The main problem inside the labyrinthine Brussels bureaucracy will be to create the right division of responsibilities with the European Executive Commission's new external relations commissioner, Chris Patten. Patten, a former British governor of Hong Kong, is also a powerful personality, who is used to having his own way.

Patten's spokesman, Gunnar Wiegand, told RFE/RL however, that the two men have been close friends for 15 years and are determined to work smoothly together. Wiegand said staff from both sides have been meeting to crystallize the two men's working methods. He said the two already established their list of priorities last month at scores of meetings with foreign officials.

Wiegand said he sees no justification for press speculation that Patten and Solana are heading for clashes because of the similarity in their roles. There's also speculation that because Patten is in the EU's executive arm (the Commission) and Solana is in the political arm (Council of Ministers), the EU could end up speaking in a babel of voices on foreign policy.

Analyst Palmer sketches his view of how it's all going to work:

"There are many areas where, under the treaties, the commission has primary responsibility. If you take the whole area of what you might call soft security -- economic aid, external trade relations, which often come into wider political and security relations -- they will be a matter primarily for the commission and Mr. Patten."

However, Palmer says, responsibility for formulating broader security and foreign policy objectives, and ensuring these are applied in practice, will belong to Solana.

Officials in Brussels are hoping that this distinction will be sufficient to avoid a destructive turf war while the EU has its hands full with other key issues -- notably eastward expansion.