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EU: Will It Ever Speak With One Voice On The World Stage?

European Union officials have long hoped that someday the bloc would speak with one voice in its affairs abroad. In recent years, member states have worked hard to forge common foreign-policy positions -- especially in economic areas. But the Iraq war laid bare deep divisions among members on major foreign-policy issues. As EU officials meet this weekend in the Greek port of Thessaloniki, healing these foreign-policy rifts is high on the agenda. But the question remains: Can the EU ever achieve the goal of a common foreign policy?

Prague, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Forging a common foreign policy among the member states continues to vex the European Union. The war in Iraq this spring exposed the deep divisions among EU members on major foreign-policy issues, even as significant progress had been made in recent years in reaching consensus on economic issues.

Peter Zervakis, a senior fellow at the Center for European Integration at Germany's Bonn University, likens the Iraq war to a "bomb." It exploded the myth that Europe was prepared to speak with one voice on issues touching national security.

"[It was] like a bomb exploded in a way, metaphorically speaking. The leading European countries, continental European countries -- Germany and France -- became aware of the fact that not only the newcomers seemed to be hesitating in following their leadership in foreign and security policy [with respect to Iraq], but also some of the older members, like Spain, Britain naturally, and Italy," Zervakis told RFE/RL.

This weekend, EU leaders meeting at a summit in Thessaloniki will have a chance to begin putting the pieces back together again. They will be considering a draft EU constitution that -- at least on paper -- strengthens moves toward a more centralized foreign policy.

The draft text is the work of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and a commission involving current and future members of the EU. It foresees the creation of a new and potentially powerful EU foreign minister. The position would replace the current system of two foreign-policy officials -- one representing the Council of Ministers and the other the European Commission.

Zervakis said the current system of dividing foreign policy into two offices is inefficient and confusing -- especially to outsiders. He says an EU foreign minister backed by both the commission and the member states would have more power.

"[The new foreign minister] will bind two functions. He will be selected, on the one hand, by the [member] states and, on the other hand, he will be part of the [European] Commission -- the 'foreign commissioner.' So actually, it is hoped that he might try to compromise between the more 'European' way of integrating policy with the more classic diplomatic state-bound policy," Zervakis said.

The draft constitution would also bind member states to support a common EU foreign policy in "a spirit of loyalty and solidarity."

But experts say at the heart of the matter are problems related to national sovereignty and the desire to project power abroad that a constitution probably cannot solve. Richard Whitman, a professor of European studies at London's University of Westminster, said there are clear lines dividing members as to how much sovereignty they are willing to yield.

"On the one hand, you have governments that are very supportive of the idea that there should be a European Union foreign policy that would at some point in the near future displace national foreign policies," Whitman told RFE/RL.

This group, he said, is still in the minority and includes countries like Belgium. "Then you've got some other government at the other end of the spectrum who are much more concerned with preserving national foreign policy. They want to use the European Union foreign policy when they see it would further their own national foreign policy or doesn't conflict with their own national foreign policy, but who really want to hang onto a strong, clear, coherent national foreign policy," Whitman said.

Still, he said, the EU has made significant progress in recent years in forging areas of common interest among members. These are, most notably, in the economic sphere, with the creation of the euro and a common EU trade policy.

"The member states have very little difficulty in collectively agreeing to a common foreign economic policy and, indeed, this is one area where there are strong competencies that are exercised centrally -- in that the European Commission plays much more of a role in these areas," Whitman said.

And it's not just economic issues. Whitman points to the EU's common foreign policy with respect to Iran -- one of engagement -- as an example of a collective policy that is both political in nature and which contrasts with U.S. policy. EU members have also achieved near consensus on potentially divisive issues like the Middle East, the Balkans, and relations with Russia.

Experts say there are compelling reasons to harmonize foreign policy. EU member states could save hundreds of millions of euros a year, for example, simply by dismantling their overlapping networks of foreign embassies and representations and operating instead through a common EU network.

Whitman points to the military as an obvious area where the EU, operating as a unit, offers economies of scale not available to individual members. And, he said, foreign aid distribution would be more efficient.

"Clearly, foreign policy is one area in which member states could see the opportunity for some kind of saving. This could be at the top end when it comes to the military. Are there efficiency gains to made there? Could they make savings by working collectively at the military end? And then further down the spectrum, are there gains to be made by the way they distribute foreign aid?" Whitman asked.

But a common foreign policy would also come at a price, in addition to the obvious diminishment of national sovereignty and national pride.

Whitman noted the 15 EU member states would lose many seats -- and influence -- in international organizations. At the top of the heap are the coveted seats held by Britain and France as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. An integrated EU presumably would only get one.

"At the moment, the European Union gets the benefit in that it gets to run or gets to have seats in lots of international organizations, gets to speak on at least 15 occasions setting out independent foreign policies, and at the same time it has a European Union foreign policy. And so it really does get very often bites of the cake or even votes within organizations. And it would obviously lose that if you were to reach a situation where you had an EU representative replacing the nation-state," Whitman said.

It's unlikely to get that far any time soon. Bonn University's Zervakis said there's a limit to how much power over foreign policy member states will part with.

"Europe is not a state. The European Union calls itself a 'union,' but this is a wrong label. It's wishful thinking. They are still independent states agreeing on certain kinds of cooperation, but -- especially in foreign and security policy -- the limits are evident," Zervakis said.

The draft EU constitution faces further debate, although the final text is expected to retain the right of member states to veto decisions they disagree with.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.