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EU: Foreign-Policy Failure On Iraq May Have Wider Implications

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Efforts by the European Union to formulate a common foreign and security policy have been damaged by the deep divisions that have emerged over Iraq. The union has struggled to find common ground, but the chasm has proved too wide to bridge. Relations between some of the EU's biggest members and the Eastern European candidate countries have also been soured by what is seen as the Easterners' pro-American stance.

Prague, 24 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Only in the last few years has the European Union been involved in formulating joint foreign policy for its member states. The Common Foreign and Security Policy, as it is called, is still relatively young. It was gradually but clearly gathering strength until the present Iraq crisis tore the policy apart. The main point of contention is how best to enforce United Nations resolutions with respect to Iraq's disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. Should the EU back a U.S. approach threatening military force or support a German-French initiative to extend and strengthen UN weapons inspectors?

Most prominently, Britain, backed by Spain and Italy, has thrown its weight in with the United States. Belgium has joined France and Germany on the other side. Positions have become so entrenched and tempers so hot there are fears that the formulation of common EU foreign policy may be put back by years.

At an emergency summit last week, EU leaders managed to agree that war in Iraq is "not inevitable." But that bland conclusion merely papered over the cracks.

This week, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, however, admitted the failure of efforts to build unity on Iraq. "There are moments when [a] common foreign policy cannot be [attained]," he said. "This is one of the cases in which, unfortunately -- and I have to say unfortunately, because this is a very important issue which deals with war and peace -- [we] should have been able to get to a common position, but we haven't."

It's not clear what will be the long-term consequences of the EU's failure to agree on Iraq. Analyst Kirsty Hughes of the Centre for European Policy Studies sees two possible scenarios: "It could either set back [the development of] a common foreign policy for many years. Or precisely because it has been so disastrous, it could lead -- once the Iraq crisis is over -- to some new thinking about how to move forward and stop [a major division from] ever happening again."

The head of the European Policy Center in Brussels, John Palmer, described the Iraq crisis as a "devastating blow" to EU aspirations to build an effective foreign and security policy. But he said the present crisis must not be allowed to diminish the fact that much has been achieved in building a common foreign policy in the last few years. He noted that the EU will soon take over peacekeeping duties in Macedonia and plans to do the same in Bosnia next year. "The EU has made massive strides, but the benchmarks by which the common foreign and security policy is judged have not remained still. They have moved, and the hurdles have become much more demanding," Palmer said.

He said the crises in the Middle East "have come before the new EU policy is fully integrated."

The Iraq affair has also tarnished relations between some big EU states and the Eastern European neighbors, most of which are candidate EU members. First, nine European leaders, including several Easterners, signed a widely published letter supporting the United States. Then, the "Vilnius 10" group of states issued a similar declaration.

French President Jacques Chirac has been strident in his criticism of the Eastern Europeans' support, and there have been hints of economic retaliation against them.

Hughes, noting the lack of consultation before these moves, said the acrimony reveals a lack of communication among members and prospective members. "The enlarged EU has to learn how to talk to one another, how to manage its own political dynamics, and to manage its disagreements," Hughes said.

Palmer said the dispute may indeed run deeper than the differences over Iraq. He said it reveals a profound difference of opinion in Europe with how best to manage relations with the United States. "Ostensibly, it's about Iraq, but it is more about a difference on how to handle what Europeans on both sides of the argument acknowledge is an American administration which is prone constantly to the temptations of unilateralism," Palmer said.

He said a major difference is between those who believe, like British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that one gains more influence with Washington by total engagement. He said this faction believes in 100 percent solidarity with the United States in public, while bringing to bear massive pressure behind the scenes to modify U.S. policy. Palmer said the second faction believes that unless the European Union stands by and makes public its distinctive views and its distinctive global strategy, it will never be taken seriously by the United States.

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