EU is mired in same old fudge


There has been a lot of talk recently about the need for the EU to develop the ability to match its political weight on the world stage with its economic muscle. Yet, while the Amsterdam Treaty deals (albeit half-heartedly) with some of the institutional problems involved, the key magic ingredient, political will, it seems, is still missing.

That, at least, appears to be the case of arguably the severest test of world diplomacy today - the refusal of Iraq to comply with UN weapons inspection. The world is lurching towards another bout of armed conflict in the Gulf and yet the EU appears to have no position beyond a broad support for the UN.

Dr Henry Kissinger used to complain of EU foreign policy that the problem was that there was "no single phone number for Europe". But there is, and at the moment it begins 0044. Who speaks for the EU on diplomatic matters? Simple: the presidency. So, when the British Minister for Defence, Mr George Robertson, said at the weekend that Britain was "flying the European flag in the Gulf", can we take it to mean that the EU supports the threats by Britain and the US to bomb Iraq? Not exactly. Mr Robertson was, a spokeswoman said, not speaking with his presidency hat on; his comments are to be understood as purely a British aspiration.

Asked in Jerusalem for a Commission view, the president, Mr Jacques Santer, was only willing to commit himself to the diplomatic equivalent of motherhood and apple pie: "We are supporting all efforts made by the Secretary General and member states to resolve the situation peacefully."

The truth is that with so little agreement on the issue, far better not to expose divisions by discussing it in an EU forum. Foreign ministers managed to avoid the issue completely at their last meeting and it is on the agenda for the next meeting on the 23rd as "Iraq (possible)".

A brief discussion last week at the meeting of political directors, the key foreign policy committee, touched on the possibility of a new Security Council resolution which would clarify the authority of Britain and the US to act.

Meanwhile, London will have been pleased to receive the explicit support of both Chancellor Kohl and the Spanish government, who have said their airfields can be used. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mr Wim Kok, has also made clear his support for the possibility of action, although stressing the need for more diplomatic work first.

Irish officials are wary about the British-US line, preferring to see continued diplomatic pressure on Iraq, but unwilling to join France, a Security Council member, in public criticism. They say, however, that if the Security Council accepts a new resolution specifying that Iraq is in "material contravention" of its obligations that attitudes could harden.

Diplomats argue that because the focus of activity is the UN Security Council there is no necessity for the EU to take a position. But the truth is that if EU political support was likely to be forthcoming, Britain would not hesitate to look for it. On this issue the Common Foreign and Security Policy appears to a be singularly empty shell. A case of the phone left off the hook?

Roisin Ingle adds:

Asked yesterday what was Ireland's position on the force issue, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: "The Security Council has not reached any agreement on the use of force against Iraq - in the absence of that agreement the issue of using military force is one for the attacking side. The Irish Government favours the line being taken by the French and Russians of not attacking in the belief that it is better to pursue diplomacy at the moment."