The European Union is caught in a bind, split over whether to admit Guantanamo detainees freed by the United States.
While some member states are willing to accept a small number of cleared detainees freed from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the EU as a whole has been unable to seize what is a rare opportunity to extend a symbolic gesture of goodwill to President Barack Obama.
Such a quick and unequivocal gesture to Obama is widely believed to be essential if the bloc wants to improve its standing in the eyes of the United States.
But asylum issues in the EU fall within the competence of individual member states. The bloc has no legal means of directing their decisions in this field.
As a result, the EU is forced to play for time, hoping a deal can eventually be thrashed out that will satisfy Washington without offending the sensitivities of any of the member states.
The Czech Republic's deputy prime minister, Alexandr Vondra, speaking on behalf of the current EU Presidency, reiterated on February 3 the position adopted by the bloc's foreign ministers on January 26 -- that the issue is delicate, complex, and needs "further study."
"This subject raises a number of political, legal, and security issues, which need further study and consultation," Vondra said.
The ball is now in the court of the EU's justice and home affairs ministers, who will debate its finer legal points at their next meeting in Brussels on February 26-27.
Split Exposed In Parliament Debate
The member states' prevarication, however unavoidable, is causing frustration in the European Parliament. The parliament has no direct powers in this area, but its debates are usually broadly indicative of the public mood within the bloc.
At a debate in the parliament's seat in Strasbourg on February 3, Graham Watson, the leader of the Liberal group, ratcheted up the pressure, saying the noncommittal position adopted by the Council of Ministers representing the EU's 27 member states is contradictory and untenable.
"We cannot forever balance the council's assertion that it's for individual member states to decide with the council's stated desire for a coordinated European position," Watson said. "Europe must speak with one voice and play its part in ending this affront to justice."
Watson said the EU must accept those among the 245 Guantanamo detainees who are cleared by U.S. authorities, but cannot return to their home countries for fear of reprisals and do not want to remain in the United States.
But the parliament's two largest factions, the right-wing European People's Party and the Party of European Socialists faction, were locked in implacable opposition.
Both groups had selected German deputies to make their respective cases, thus also underlying the deep divisions within the coalition government of the EU's largest member state.
Harthmuth Nassauer, representing the People's Party, argued that when all is said and done, security concerns must trump humanitarian considerations. He argued that most of the detainees, even if cleared of wrongdoing, remain dangerous.
"Many of the detainees, for example, who went to Afghanistan after September 11  have attended training camps for terrorists," Nassauer said. "And those who did so were no tourists wanting to admire the beauty of the country, but remain potential terrorists."
Martin Schulz, the leader of the Socialist faction, took issue with Nassauer, describing the latter's thinking as "fatally flawed." Schulz maintained global security is best served when the EU supports a U.S. administration that is trying to return to international norms and values.
"I believe therefore that we can, with the closing down of Guantanamo, with support for Barack Obama, and with an active contribution -- when the U.S. government so requests -- contribute more to security, the security of the world, than with propagating a false security concept," Schulz said.
Moving Fault Lines
With the German government split, the EU is robbed of its natural leader. France heads an unlikely "coalition of the willing," arguing with Portugal, Spain, and a few others that the bloc has a unique chance to prove itself in the eyes of President Obama while once again underlining its distaste for the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
The Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark, among others, believe Guantanamo is ultimately a "U.S. problem," which Washington must put right on its own.
Austria leads a number of member states countries taking cover behind their restrictive immigration laws. Most natural U.S. allies in Eastern Europe fall within this group.
The freedom of movement afforded by the bloc's border-free Schengen space, which encompasses most of the EU, also worries many member states. A detainee resettled in one Schengen country could move from country to country without any hindrance or surveillance.
EU officials on February 3 welcomed Obama's parallel decisions to outlaw secret detention facilities and "enhanced interrogation" techniques, both held by the EU to be in contravention of international law.
Commissioner Barrot said the EU believes these changes were not only necessary as a matter of principle, but also essential to avoid further inflaming the Muslim world.
"Because the fight against terrorism must always be carried out respecting international law," Barrot said. "Respect for human rights in the fight against terrorism is important not only in principle, but also [necessary] to combat [Islamic] radicalization around the world."
Czech Deputy Prime Minister Vondra said that although the U.S. practice of "renditions" -- the extrajudicial removal of terrorist suspects from another country's territory -- will continue, Obama has undertaken to ensure the prisoners' treatment will comply with international standards.
Vondra and Barrot also indicated the EU does not intend to link resettling Guantanamo prisoners to U.S. cooperation in investigations of previous renditions or secret prisons it may have operated on EU territory.