EU saying ‘no’ to the US?

Posted in Politics + Diplomacy by expresscheckout on 13 September, 2006 This article originally appeared on under a Creative Commons licence. To view the original article, please click here.

Europe’s foreign policy: saying “no” to the US?
John Palmer
12 – 9 – 2006

The European Union’s foreign and security policy in the middle east may be on the brink of a historic shift, says John Palmer.
The European Union may – just may – be on the cusp of unveiling a foreign and security policy towards the most explosive issues in the middle east which marks a significant break with the strategy followed so far under the leadership of the Bush administration. Although the new EU strategy is as yet being pursued tentatively and with a desire to avoid provoking Washington, American neo-conservative ideologues are already scenting a major new transatlantic rift.

The past few months have seen a perceptible decline in the influence of the Bush administration on global affairs, in part-consequence of the mounting setbacks to its strategy in the “war against terror” in general and the near-disintegration of its policies in Iraq in particular. A further factor has been the ejection of some of George W Bush’s key international allies from office – a process which began with the election defeat of José-María Aznar in Spain after the Madrid bombs in March 2004, and continued with the removal of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy in April 2006. A similar fate (voluntary or forced) awaits Tony Blair in Britain over the next few months.

Meanwhile, the serious military setback sustained by Israel at the hands of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon has dealt a deadly blow to the image of Israel as America’s all-powerful military proxy in the middle east.

Three signals of change

Three developments in the first two weeks of September 2006 offer significant indications that the European Union is beginning to assert itself over foreign and security policy in ways which are causing anxiety and some veiled hostility in Washington.

First, the EU “foreign-policy supremo”, Javier Solana, reported on 10 September that he had made “significant progress” in his weekend talks with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani about how to break out of the impasse over Tehran’s insistence on continuing its uranium-enrichment programme.

Until now the United States has insisted that there can be no diplomatic negotiations with Iran until its abandons that programme. But the EU appears to be working on a compromise which would open the way for Iran to suspend its nuclear programme “temporarily” after the negotiations have begun and to continue as long as the negotiations last.

Second, Bush administration spokespersons have been demanding “more clarification” of EU intentions towards Iran in recent days, in ways which reflect irritation that Washington can no longer lay down the strategy to be followed by the western allies. The US also views the massive EU-led forces which are providing the backbone of the United Nations’s peacekeeping forces in Lebanon with some misgivings. While the UN mission is welcomed, its actual operating mandate is not what the US wanted. At EU insistence the mandate for the UN forces will not include the forcible disarming of Hizbollah.

Moreover, EU governments – notably Germany, Italy and France – are in regular contact with Hizbollah as well as with Iran and Syria. The Bush administration regards all three as completely beyond the pale for their alleged involvement in terrorism or support for terrorism.

Third, EU foreign ministers – who met informally in Lappeenranta, Finland on 1-2 September to outline their new strategy – have signalled that they want a change in approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The general view among the twenty-five EU governments is that the economic boycott of the Palestinian government formed by Hamas after the movement’s January 2006 election victory has been a serious mistake which has pushed the Palestinian territories into total chaos. EU diplomats are actively working on language which Hamas could adopt to imply a de facto (rather than a formal, de jure) recognition of Israel.

This might be based on Hamas’s existing willingness to negotiate a “two-state” solution to the conflict with Israel. If this is followed by the installation of a new Hamas-led Palestinian coalition government, as the agreement on 11 September between Palestine’s president Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniya presages, the restoration of EU economic aid would follow.

Hardline neocons in Washington have been warning for some time that the European Union can no longer be relied on to follow US leadership more or less automatically. They are particularly hostile towards Erkki Tuomioja, the Finnish foreign minister, all the more so since the Finnish government currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Within the Bush administration, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice still appears to have a reasonably constructive working relationship with Javier Solana. But among advisors to vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Solana is viewed with barely disguised contempt.

The politics of a new course

It remains to be seen whether the European Union will sustain the unity and self-confidence to pursue its increasingly independent line on global foreign and security policy issues. Tony Blair no longer wields the influence he once did (in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on 11 September, he spoke about his fear that his European partners had little real understanding of the “threat from global terrorism and Islamic extremism”.)

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, would also be made nervous by any risk of an open breach with Washington. But EU governments also are aware of the depth of popular hostility to the Bush administration and fear being tarnished by too close an association with the existing US strategy in the region.

The past eighteen months have been very difficult for the European Union following the rejection of the draft EU constitutional treaty by voters in France and the Netherlands. However fourteen EU member-states have now ratified the treaty and there are signs that the two countries whose people voted “no” in the referenda of May-June 2005 may soon be ready to accept some of the most far-reaching provisions of the treaty. These include creating an EU foreign minister and diplomatic service and having elections – through the European parliament – for future presidents of the commission.

In a major speech in Brussels on 8 September, Nicolas Sarkozy, the front-running rightwing candidate for the French presidency, presented a full-blooded manifesto for further European integration – including the creation of a full time EU foreign minister. His principle rival in the presidential election in April-May 2007, the socialist Ségolène Royal, a long standing pro-European, is expected to give her backing for some similar moves to break the impasse over the treaty in the next few days. If either is elected, the way may be cleared for negotiations to put the treaty back on track – perhaps by implementing it in stages.

EU governments are keen to carry through their radical new foreign-policy strategy without any public rupture in relations with the United States. Apart from anything else everyone knows that delivering the Israeli government to serious political negotiations on a full and final settlement of the Palestine issue will require cooperation and goodwill in Washington.

Some European Union leaders make no secret of their impatience to see a new Democratic president and administration in Washington on the basis that it will be less unilateralist and ideologically driven than the current administration. In the meantime the EU seems to be serious about pursuing its own foreign policy, whatever the mutterings and muted criticisms being heard across the Atlantic.

John Palmer has written about European affairs for many years, notably as European editor of the Guardian. He is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre and an advisor to a number of European Foundations.


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