Brussels Unbound

Brussels Unbound

Mini Teaser: The EU has "unilateralist" ambitions.

by Author(s): Jeffrey L. Cimbalo

The United States has unwittingly been the great facilitator of the EU's most recent failures by broadening the context in which it engages the EU. Whether in trying to coordinate policy, as in joint policy toward Iran, or dealing directly with EU institutions (even those with questionable foundation under current treaties), the United States has engaged the EU as never before. In so doing, the Bush Administration seems to have fallen into an increasingly common trap set by EU boosters, who encourage confusion between the EU's clear but narrow powers to make EC law and those inchoate EU powers to make foreign policy generally--which, given their nonexistence, are as broad as the EU's imagination.

EU policy toward the Middle East in the face of the electoral victory by Hamas, which was elected to rule the Palestinian Authority in early 2006, is instructive. The EU is a member of the so-called "quartet"--along with the United States, Russia and the United Nations--attempting to mediate peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Together, the nations of the EU are the largest donors to the Palestinian Authority, with aid totaling some $600 million, and several member states enjoy excellent relations with many factions of the PA. Once Hamas, which is on the EU's and America's lists of terrorist organizations, continued its refusal to renounce terrorism or affirm Israel's right to exist (contrary to the quartet's demands), the United States suspended payments to the PA informally but immediately, while the EU continued payments of over $140 million, on the stated grounds that the PA ought not to be allowed to collapse.

Several European leaders quickly expressed the need to cut off funds to Hamas if it persisted in repudiating agreements with Israel and continued to deny Israel's right to exist. But the European Council could not even agree on a statement after Hamas's victory. Eventually, the Council of Ministers, composed of all 25 member states' foreign ministers, agreed to withhold funds to Hamas until it recognized Israel's right to exist, renounced violence and accepted previous peace agreements. But then, not two weeks later, then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke out on the issue, stating that for the UK, Hamas need not alter its charter calling for the destruction of Israel for negotiations to continue and, presumably, British money should be released as long as "the money is not used by terrorists."

Thus the U.S. policy nimbly formed after the Palestinian election has been seriously impaired in its ability to modify Hamas's behavior by making funding conditional, since the EU continued its contributions long past the time Hamas needed to secure other sources of funding from the Arab League, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But again, the EU stance is not reflective of all its member states' positions relating to the current situation. The apparent seizure of general foreign policy powers by EU elites has raised the unreasonable expectation inside and outside the EU that it can reach a policy even in the absence of unanimity. Straw's statement, contrary to EU policy but perfectly within Britain's right under the current treaties to have its own foreign policy, neatly restates the problem for dealing with the EU as a separate diplomatic actor right now.

The requirement of unanimity also leads to a serious erosion of resolve in EU diplomacy toward third parties. The EU negotiates as much with itself to form policy as it does with others. The efforts of the EU-3--Great Britain, France and Germany--to counter presumed Iranian nuclear proliferation is particularly illustrative. The three operated as a subcommittee for both EU member states and Solana. The EU-3 mediated disagreements among themselves, which were common, in favor of the least difficult stance to sell to the rest of the members. Typically, Britain and France would be inclined to take a harder line than Germany, and the three would present a proposed stance to Solana. Solana would then either consult the heads of state or estimate their wishes himself, an exercise which invariably softened the proposed stance further.

The results were disastrous. The only progress their efforts produced was the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program. One still cannot say that the EU itself has any policy toward Iranian proliferation, other than general pronouncements of its undesirability. The State Department, aware of and greatly aggrieved by the stilted, hollow negotiation process, nevertheless had little choice but to acquiesce to the EU's pleas for more time before taking action in the UN Security Council or other diplomatic measures.

Also, as shown with Iran, the drive for political union colors the EU's own calculations of the prospects for success. Chancellor Merkel, greeting the results of the EU, effused, "It was what made this EU-3 approach so successful. They [Britain, France and Germany] stood together and they had one uniform position." Charles Krauthammer grimly noted that this interpretation of events "makes you want to weep." EU elites covet the clear diplomatic role for the EU that the constitution alone would have provided for the future, but their attempts to will such a role into existence portend calamity for those that seek to deal with the EU today.

Granted, EU policy inertia can occasionally redound to the benefit of Western security interests, such as the inability of the EU to come to an agreement to lift its existing weapons embargo against China. But such benefits only accrue by chance. And hoping for good luck is no basis for a foreign policy.

Towards a Stronger Europe

EU elites' desperation for a diplomatic identity and capability is extremely unlikely to yield a "strong Europe" and has serious implications for the United States. Foremost, the lack of clarity, legitimacy and decisiveness of today's EU undermines Europe's critical joint initiatives with the United States. Also, EU actions naturally come at the expense of alternative member-state action, either ad hoc or through existing international organizations, such as NATO or the UN. Together, these factors threaten to keep the EU's leverage abroad far below what its size and status should warrant. If the EU continues to assert powers that it has not yet legitimately acquired, and fails even then to use them effectively, a true EU foreign policy may be dead before it is legally allowed to begin.

Within Europe itself there is wide concern about a general EU arrogation of powers, reflected in part by the French "non" and the Dutch "nee" to the constitution. This is even more fully seen in national legislatures' revolt against further EU aggrandizement, as evidenced by a joint call of all the legislatures (except Italy's) in the fall of 2005 for greater oversight of the EU, and the refusal of three national legislatures (Austria's, Finland's and Germany's) to sign on to the European Parliament's efforts to deal in unison with the aftermath of the Dutch and French votes, lest they "be seen just as an appendix to the European Parliament." Noting this, and until EU institutions are legitimated through a constitutional process or treaty, America should make a tactical retreat from joint diplomacy with the EU on pressing foreign policy matters.

In addition, the EU's basic structures lay the foundation for sluggish decision-making. The organic problem of foreign policy by diverse committee would exist even if the constitution had passed, lending itself to the lowest common denominator in policymaking--usually anodyne pronouncements, or no action at all.

There can be no question that it is in America's interest to have the strongest possible relationship with the largest number of European peoples, no matter how that relationship is organized. Also true is that a "strong Europe" at any given time is one that maximizes the aggregate influence of its nations. A great many of the most pressing foreign policy issues of the United States, including counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation and the threats to domestic liberty by Islamic fascism, can only be solved by concerted efforts of all or most of the advanced Western democracies in pursuit of shared interests. Throughout the Cold War, nations worked together through both formal and informal networks to stem threats to peace or the Western way of life. "Europe" and the United States have always been strongest on the world stage when acting in concert or, at least, not at cross-purposes.

Thus it should not be surprising that the United States, rightly thinking that good relations between the peoples of Europe and the United States are important, has been increasingly putting stock in U.S.-EU action, to the delight of EU officials but the detriment of common interests, including that of a "strong Europe." Not accounted for by such moves is the fact that a substantial number of citizens of EU member states (say, Austria or Ireland) do not want to ever be allied with the United States, and any one EU member state can veto or suspend effective policy cooperation with America. "Europe", meanwhile, would better deploy its enormous global leverage by working within existing multinational organizations (such as seeking NATO sanctions on Syria for its role in allowing the Danish embassy to be destroyed), relying on institutions that have a clear mandate (applying new EC economic sanctions against, say, Iran or Hamas), or organizing ad hoc initiatives among individual EU member states. Until the EU's powers are defined, a "strong Europe" will never mean the "European Union." Accordingly, U.S. reliance on the EU as a separate diplomatic entity for resolving critical foreign policy issues represents much more than a sort of therapy for those EU elites wounded by the defeat of the constitution. It amounts to an imaginary alliance with a new and illusory "country." America should not be drawn into a guessing game over the real powers of the European Union.

Essay Types: Essay