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EU: Wounds Will Be Slow To Heal After Splits Caused By Iraq

The breakdown in European unity over Iraq shows the fragility of the European integration process, at least on the political level. Economic integration has been a key factor in making the European Union an economic superpower over the last few decades. But the parallel process toward political unity is not progressing so well, and now, with the deep divisions caused by Iraq, the goal seems more distant than ever.

Prague, 28 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union (EU) has been profoundly affected by the disagreements among its member states over how to handle the Iraq crisis. The issue has not only led to strains among established members but has soured relations with candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The crisis pits France and Germany against Britain, Spain, and Italy. The main point of contention is how best to enforce UN resolutions with respect to Iraqi disarmament of its alleged weapons of mass destruction. The British-led group supports the U.S. approach threatening military force, while Germany and France seek instead to extend and strengthen the role of UN weapons inspectors.

A notable point is how the EU itself has virtually disappeared from the equation. The decisions are being taken individually in Paris, London and Berlin, with the EU's high representative on foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, left virtually voiceless on the sidelines.

Indeed, Solana admitted on 24 February that the EU does not have a common position on Iraq, despite EU leaders who had a week earlier declared they reached such an agreement at an emergency summit in Brussels.

The EU's common foreign and security policy, or CFSP as it is called, has only been in existence for the last several years, and has not proven strong enough to weather the storm over Iraq.

The head of the European Policy Centre, John Palmer, puts it this way: "The crises in the Middle East have come before the new policy is integrated, so although the Balkans and other areas have seen the EU move in and take over responsibilities that would have been unthinkable on a united basis a few years ago. Unfortunately, the world has not stood still, and the new challenges which the EU is facing have outstripped the speed of evolution of the common foreign and security policy."

Not only has the EU been left behind by present developments, but its own members have broken its legally binding rules. According to legal experts, the five EU leaders who signed an open letter in early February supporting the U.S. position were in breach of the 1992 Maastricht treaty, the Treaty on European Union. That's because their stance contradicted a common position adopted by EU ministers on 27 January.

Under the treaty, EU governments also have a legal obligation to consult together and to coordinate their position on foreign affairs.

In the case of the five EU prime ministers, they did not inform even the current EU Presidency, held by Greece, of their intentions. Leaders from four EU candidate countries -- Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic -- also signed the letter. They are not yet members of the EU, but they also breached the spirit of the law.

So did the 10 Eastern European countries, the so-called Vilnius 10, who issued a similar declaration without prior consultations with their future EU partners. As Kirsty Hughes of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies puts it: "That's not a very good way to conduct European politics and European diplomacy. It's not to say that people and countries can't disagree, but there has to be a better way of managing those disagreements."

She says she believes all sides in both East and West will learn a lesson from the affair -- namely, that the EU's eastward enlargement is an ongoing process.

The Iraq crisis has been a severe blow to the EU's common foreign policy project. She says the dispute over Iraq will either set development of the policy back years, or the reverse may happen -- the union will take a fresh look at the project and try new ways of making it effective. Hughes: "The question is whether in the next five, 10 or 15 years some of the bigger countries like France, Britain and Germany are going to be willing to coordinate more, to have much more of a process for looking step by step at how they can overcome disagreements, and whether -- when they finally cannot overcome disagreements -- whether they cannot find a way to manage them."

If the EU can find a better way to manage its differences, some good will have come out of the present troubles.