Accessibility links

Breaking News

EU: European Countries Define Their Defense And Economic Roles

Prague, 11 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Here are some more brief accounts of important developments within or touching on the European Union that often get overlooked because they don't rate headline status. They concern the little-known West European Union (WEU), a postwar West European defense organization older than NATO but with little of its clout; an upcoming critical Danish referendum on the EU's Amsterdam Treaty, whose passage last year opened the way for the Union's planned expansion to the East; and efforts to warm up the recent cool relations between the EU and the U.S.

--At a biannual two-day ministerial meeting of the WEU that got underway today on the Greek island of Rhodes, 10 of the EU's 15 nations are taking part as members, and the other five --along with three NATO nations, Iceland, Turkey and Norway-- are there as official observers. The 10 Central and East European EU candidate states, all granted the status of WEU "associate partners," are also taking part in the meeting, which is seeking --as the organization has sought for 50 years-- to define the WEU's role.

Set up in 1948 as Western Europe's first collective response to the Soviet Cold- War threat, the WEU was effectively superseded a year later by the creation of NATO, which pledged both the U.S. and Canada to defend their European allies in the event of an attack. Thereafter, the WEU languished for more than four decades, with a headquarters in London, and a research arm and toothless parliamentary assembly based in Paris.

But after the collapse of European communism in 1989 France, concerned about U.S. domination, sought to rescue the organization and turn it into what Paris called the EU's "defense arm" and the "European pillar" of NATO. The French even got some of that language written into the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which turned the old European Community in to a Union.

It hasn't worked out that way, as even the French have since admitted. When the new WEU, now housed in luxurious quarters in Brussels, faced its first big crisis last Spring in an Albania spiraling into crisis, Britain and Germany prevented any collective action. Finally, Italy assembled a 6,000-strong international force on its own to bring humanitarian aid to Albania. The WEU sent 35 police officers.

The result has been to saddle the new WEU with the old one's long-time reputation for impotence and irrelevance. At its last ministerial meeting in November, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine said bluntly, "We can see the WEU just fading away." Vedrine hasn't even bothered to come to this week's Rhodes meeting. Like his British and German counterparts, Vedrine has sent a deputy in his place.

Last week in Brussels the WEU's Secretary General, Jose Cutileiro of Portugal, said that there was no further need for what he called "institutional engineering" to turn the EU into a peacekeeper and humanitarian-aid supplier in European hot spots where NATO chose not to go. All that was necessary, he said, is "the necessary political will." The trouble is, there is little sign of that will existing.

--Up in the EU's northern reaches, Denmark is preparing for a referendum later this month (May 28) on the Union's Amsterdam Treaty. Six years ago, independence-proud Danish voters rejected Maastricht, which almost derailed the treaty. The Danes changed their mind a year later in another referendum, after Brussels granted Copenhagen exemptions allowing it to stay out the EU's coming single currency, and joint defense and judicial policies.

Could the same happen to the Amsterdam Treaty, thereby slowing down EU enlargement? Most analysts say that's not likely, and recent polls indicate a small majority of Danes will vote "yes" to Amsterdam. But the ruling Social Democrat-led Government last week legislated an end to a 10-day general strike, which could lead to workers punishing the government with "no" votes. Taking no chances, foreign investors have reduced their Danish portfolios, triggering an outflow of foreign currency and a weakening of the Danish crown. So once again, there is at least a chance of Denmark upsetting an important EU timetable. At a rally in Copenhagen Saturday, Premier Poul Nyrup Rasmussen said Denmark would gain from the entry of Eastern nations into the EU. He said, "Nothing good comes from keeping others outside." A 60-year-old worker took the microphone to disagree and explain why he would vote against Amsterdam. "With all those East bloc countries," he said, "we'll have a lot more problems."

--Press reports today suggest that President Bill Clinton may be preparing to lift the U.S.' threat of economic sanctions against EU companies heavily investing in the energy industries of Iran and Libya, considered "rogue nations" in Washington. If he does, that could lead to an accord between him and EU leaders when they meet in London a week from today (May 18) for their twice-yearly summit.

The long-time dispute over two U.S. sanctions laws that would punish nations dealing with Cuba as well as with Iran and Libya sharpened last Autumn when France's Total oil company and Gazprom of Russia (along with a Malaysian company) announced a 2,000-million-dollar deal for a natural gas project with Iran. Ever since, both sides have been looking for a way out.

The EU wants Clinton to waive the sanctions over the Iran deal, as one of the laws --the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act-- allows him to do, and seek amendments to the second law --known, for its sponsors, as the Helms-Burton Act. But the U.S. wants the EU to agree on ways to stop international investors from profiting from illegally expropriated assets in Cuba, sanctionable under the second law.

Although high U.S. and EU officials have been meeting for the past two weeks, important disagreements still remain. The situation has also been complicated by a letter to Clinton sent Friday (May 8) by 15 influential senators, most opposition Republicans. The Washington Post says today (F8906) that the letter urges the President n-o-t to sign the waiver because, in the letter's words, that "would send exactly the wrong message at the critical moment."

All this leaves Clinton with a difficult choice: If he does waive sanctions, it would remove a major irritant to trans-Atlantic relations. But it would also surely further irritate, and alienate, important legislators whose support he will surely need in other areas.