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Disunity holds the EU back from a major global role

13 February 2003

Whether or not there will be a war against Iraq, the debate over war has already claimed a victim: the vision of the European Union as a global actor.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the limits of the EU's common foreign and defense policies have been revealed without mercy. Member states have pursued purely national policies, sidelining the EU. Multilateral initiatives, such as the recent declaration of solidarity with the United States by eight European heads of government, have been intended to demonstrate disagreement, rather than agreement, among EU partners. Honorable attempts by Greece, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, to revamp the EU's role have come too late to limit the damage.
World politics are being decided elsewhere, while action on the common European foreign, security and defense policies has been restricted to their traditional, narrowly defined playgrounds as if nothing had happened. This is not the fault of the EU, but of national governments. They are still the only masters in foreign, security and defense matters, and it was they who decided not to play the EU card. In particular, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany have laid down their opposing national positions - and declared them as irreversible - without even trying to elaborate a common EU approach. In this respect, there are no "old" or "new" Europeans, only bad Europeans.
From a European point of view, the conclusions are therefore rather depressing. The more important a foreign policy issue is, the less relevant the EU becomes as a framework for action. When push comes to shove, all member states play a national game and follow their own short-term interests.
Member states might have common values and commercial interests, but they don't have a common vision of the world that could guide a common foreign and security policy. Most of them have, at best, a regionally focused foreign policy. Germany lacks both clear objectives and a strategy. France and Britain have ambitions in world politics, but these are hardly compatible with each other.
Rivalry and mistrust remain basic patterns of European politics. For most EU member states, it is still unacceptable for one of their peers to gain greater influence and take the lead. Their main priority is therefore to hold one another on a leash - and not to put at risk their protection by the United States. The fact that "new Europe" prepared its famous declaration of solidarity with the United States behind the back of "old Europe," just when the Franco-German bond had regained a certain dynamic, is a case in point.
Most member states are ready to undermine the common project as soon as they sense the slightest risk of a directoire, a leading group. This lesson is, again, particularly painful for France and Germany: Their proposal to modernize the common foreign and security policy by introducing qualified majority votes for nonmilitary decisions, for example, might well fail because of their partners' suspicions about a new Franco-German axis.
All this does not mean that common EU foreign, security and defense policies are dead. The EU will and should continue to develop its own crisis-management capabilities to deal with nearby conflicts, for example in the Balkans. But more serious business will be for a long time beyond reach.
The foreign and defense policies of EU member states may progressively come closer, but this will be, at best, a long-term process. EU enlargement will make things even more difficult, as new member states are very U.S. - minded and profoundly hostile to integration. Recent experience might well dampen the enthusiasm of "old Europe" for a stronger EU as well. Moreover, the intergovernmental method that governs the common foreign, security and defense policies is the best guarantee that national reflexes will persist and prevail, even at the price of international irrelevance.
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how the EU can play a significant role in world affairs, let alone become an equal partner to the United States. L'Europe puissance - Europe as a power - will remain for a long time a French dream rather than a European vision.
This is a personal comment and does not necessarily reflect the views of the institute.