EU at a turning point over Syria question

Analysis: deep divisions have been revealed in negotiations over arms embargo

British foreign secretary William Hague, left, talks with Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn, centre, and Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger during the EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

British foreign secretary William Hague, left, talks with Luxembourg’s foreign minister Jean Asselborn, centre, and Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger during the EU foreign ministers meeting on Monday. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

Wed, May 29, 2013, 11:19

Yesterday the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union co-hosted a high-profile conference at the European Parliament in Brussels titled The EU as a Peacemaker: Enhancing the EU’s Mediation Capacity. The timing was in many ways inauspicious.

Less than 24 hours earlier, EU foreign ministers emerged from hours of fraught negotiations to announce the ending of the arms embargo on Syria. While the process revealed deep divisions on the Syrian question, it also revealed the underlying challenges of formulating a common policy in an area that still remains fundamentally a matter of national sovereignty.

Ultimately, the threat that Britain and France would go it alone always lay behind the discussions.

As critics accused the EU of disharmony and incoherence, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton late on Monday gave an impassioned defence of the EU commitment to the principle of compromise.

“All positions on this are really honourable. Everybody is trying to work out how best to support the people of Syria, how best to ensure that we get to a political solution as quickly as possible.”

Her words in many way accurately captured the dilemma facing the EU on the embargo question. Britain’s plea that the world could not stand by as Opposition forces struggle under the blows of the Assad regime was not unreasonable.

Similarly, Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger expressed the opposing view succinctly. “We just received the Nobel Peace Prize and to now go in the direction of intentionally getting involved in a conflict with weapon deliveries, I think that is wrong.”

Ultimately, despite these strong words, member states were prepared to reach an “agreement” – however divisive – rather than let the talks collapse. Ironically, this disunity may end up being exploited by Russia and the Assad regime in the coming days as all parties try to propel forward the peace talks scheduled for next month.

As the EU’s foreign policy lay exposed, yesterday’s conference on the EU as a mediator could be seen as timely, offering an alternative vision. Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore yesterday emphasised the EU’s potential in the realm of mediation, citing the recent EU-brokered Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.

Europe had “a critical role to play in conflict prevention”, he said.

The union’s mediation skills may be about to face their toughest challenge yet.