Prague, 18 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - A weekend meeting of the European Union's foreign ministers has pointed up once again how difficult it is for the group's 15 member states to agree quickly and effectively on critical foreign policy problems touching on their national interests.
The ministers' two-day meeting in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn, one of their regular semi-annual "informal" get-togethers, dealt at length with the current crisis in Albania. They were conspicuously unable to speak with a single voice and had to settle for the policy equivalent of the lowest common denominator. In the past several years, that has become the usual practice on such matters for the EU, where rampant disunity rather than true "union" now reigns.
Last Thursday, Albania's feuding political leaders united in issuing a call for EU military intervention to restore order in the country, which at that point had effectively descended into mob rule. The 54-state OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) also appealed for strong EU military action. And on Saturday, when the EU ministers began their meeting, their own -- and the United Nations' -- envoy in Bosnia, Carl Bildt, called military intervention "essential" if the Union was to avoid another foreign policy humiliation in a Yugoslavia-like situation careening out of control.
Bildt, in particular, did not pull his punches.
"Theoretical discussions on a common foreign and security policy risk looking pathetic if the European Union is not able to pursue strong policies in the area of Europe where instability is must dangerous. We must not fail again," he stressed.
But Bildt's and the other appeals were all to no avail, and another failure now seems imminent. With her customary bluntness, Swedish Foreign Minister Lena Helm-Wallen summed up the Apeldoorn debate on Albania in one dismissive phrase: "To be frank, we do not know what to do." Another minister told the Associated Press: "There is solid disagreement." The agency's analyst called that remark an "understatement."
In the end, the ministers agreed on a declaration saying that "the EU is committed to helping Albania to help itself" and on the dispatch of 11 EU diplomats and military advisers to Tirana on a 36-hour fact-finding mission. The mission, which arrived in Tirana yesterday, is also charged with advising the Albanian Government, still led by beleaguered President Sali Berisha, on ways of restoring order in the country.
That task could turn out to be "Mission Impossible." One correspondent in Tirana, Emma Daly of the "London Independent," wrote today that "the EU team will have to work our how Albania's finest (policemen) are to conduct operations on the tens of thousands of compatriots now armed with stolen weaponry."
The ministerial chorus in Apeldoorn was strikingly dissonant. Only Denmark and Greece, wrote one veteran analyst of EU affairs, "said explicitly that the EU should back an international effort to impose order in Albania before the crisis spills over into Serbia and Macedonia and sends tens of thousands of refugees flooding into" Western Europe. Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg-Petersen, whose country currently holds the OSCE presidency, called for the quick sending of "a stabilization force (of several thousand troops with a) clear mandate and an exit strategy." But his counterparts from some of the EU's larger states would have nothing of it.
British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind called talk of EU intervention "premature," but did speak of the eventual dispatch of "dozens, not hundreds" of EU military and police personnel to Albania. Herve de Charette of France said: "We envisage designating an administrator, with a team of professionals, to help Albania." Germany's Klaus Kinkel condemned what he called the "something-must-be-done" school of foreign policy. Citing "Yugoslavia (as a) lesson," Kinkel drew conclusions quite different from those of Bildt: "We cannot send one soldier without a clear mandate," he said. Sending in troops "is not that easy."
Nobody, of course, has been suggesting that restoring order to Albania would be "easy." But what commentators have been saying after the Apeldoorn meeting is that, without U.S. leadership, the EU will remain as disunited -- and collectively impotent -- on Albania as it was in Yugoslavia. The AFP's MacKinnon perhaps summed it up best: "The tortuous (EU) debate over Albania," Mackinnon wrote, "mirrored European dithering over Bosnia. It was not until the U.S. pushed through the Dayton peace agreement and NATO was mandated to apply force that order was brought to the former Yugoslavia."
With all the differences between the violent crises in Albania and ex-Yugoslavia, the EU's reaction to both has been, ominously, the same. But there is one important and perhaps ultimately decisive difference between the two problems: The United States shows no signs of playing a leadership role in Albania, where its national interests are perceived by many legislators and opinion-makers as even more remote than they were in Yugoslavia.