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Europe diary: Europe and the world

29 March 2007

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell on the European Union's growing, but often unrecognised, role in the field of foreign policy, and continuing support for the idea of an EU foreign minister.

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British soldiers returning from Bosnia
EU peacekeepers have been very active in the Balkans
Do tyrants cower when the European Parliament denounces their misdeeds? I thought we were going to find out this week. After all, the parliament passes regular motions condemning appalling behaviour, here there and everywhere. They've just adopted a report that describes China's human rights record as of "serious concern", views the situation in Iran with "deep concern" and is "appalled" at some measures in Russia.

There is little doubt the parliament has a fair deal to say about foreign affairs generally. This week there's a statement on relations with the Arab world, meetings with the president of Ukraine and a visit from an Assembly delegation from Iraq. Members of the European Parliament are on visits to Nigeria, Japan and East Timor.

So I was genuinely looking forward to getting my hands on a document called "The impact of the resolution and other activities of the European Parliament in the field of human rights outside the European Union". I'm interested in whether, for instance, politicians in Belarus take more or less notice of finger-wagging from MEPs, than from say the Finnish or German parliament.

But the document turns out to be an argument that it would be better to have a full committee looking into torture and illegal imprisonment than just a sub-committee. It doesn't examine whether people get released as a result of the reports that come out.


Whatever impact the Europe Parliament might or might not have, there's little doubt that the European Union as a whole is big in foreign affairs. It's a growth area, "mushrooming" according to one deeply involved, and I suspect few realise how seriously it is taken in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Bosnia peacekeeping
Bosnia policing
Congo policing
Civilian-military support to AU Darfur peackeepers
Border assistance at Gaza-Egypt crossing
Police training in Palestinian territories
Training for judges, police and prison staff in Iraq
Anti-smuggling operation on Moldova/Ukraine border
Although Kissinger once famously complained he didn't know Europe's phone number, I am less sure what the Americans make of an EU foreign policy. Obviously, it partly depends on what is being said, and I suspect Iraq wasn't the last time that attitudes towards the United States' policy will be the pivot on which the European Union's foreign policy swivels.

The EU didn't have such a thing until the Maastricht treaty 15 years ago. But things really kicked off in 1999 with the establishment of a common security and defence policy and the appointment of the former Spanish foreign minister and Nato chief, Javier Solana, to the job of High Representative.

Kalman Mizsei - Moldova
Roeland ven de Geer - Great Lakes
Peter Semneby - South Caucasus
Pierre Morel - Central Asia
Christian Schwarz-Schilling - Bosnia
Erwan Fouere - Macedonia
Pekka Haavisto - Sudan
Marc Otte - Middle East
Francesc Vendrell - Afghanistan
The EU is playing a very active role in the Iranian crisis and attempting to get Middle East peace talks back on the roadmap. There are special representatives in nine of the world's hot spots, from the African Great Lakes to Moldova, from Sudan to Afghanistan. Insiders say the call often goes out "Can Europe help?"

There are also EU operations in nine parts of the world. They're mostly police and customs officials, but some military too. There is all the usual stuff of any foreign ministry as well. Europe's energy policy is partly a foreign policy tool, aimed at circumventing Russian power, and leading the world by example. At the moment, one of the biggest preoccupations at the top of the European Union is preparing for the US-EU summit later this year, and there's a similar meeting with Russia also in the pipeline.


All this is well known. Or is it? The above facts are basic for anyone interested in the subject but I'm pretty sure most people are unaware of the EU's reach and ambition. I have a gut feeling that the EU's foreign policy is taken a lot more seriously outside Europe than inside. My colleague Jonny Dymond confirmed my suspicions that prophets are not honoured on their own continent, when he returned from a trip round the Middle East with Mr Solana.

Javier Solana

The local papers were full of the visit, he was treated with the utmost seriousness and respect. But within Europe it hardly got reported (except by Jonny). Of course this is not that surprising, as there was no great breakthrough, no momentous news.

I have a gut feeling that the way many of us report the European Union rather downplays its impact outside its own borders. In most countries, news desks would all rather have copy about their prime minister or president than some EU official, especially when they are hazy about what they actually do.

It's only natural. And I am not bleating about news desks that don't understand: I do the same. If I had an interview with Javier Solana announcing an EU policy and Tony Blair backing it, and could only use one, I would have no hesitation about which I would use, and no doubt which my main audience would be more interested in. This is hard to avoid, but I worry it may give a less than accurate impression of the EU's impact in the world.

This alarms those hostile to the EU project, who are constantly warning that the union is ever extending itself and trespassing in areas that belong to sovereign countries. It also worries fans of the EU who feel its doing a good job and should go on doing more. But perhaps I am wrong about the way the EU is seen abroad? How would diplomats in a middle-sized state in Asia or Africa rate the importance of visits by the British foreign secretary, the Swedish prime minister, Javier Solana and the Lithuanian president?


The idea of an EU foreign minister hasn't gone away. It was one of the big ideas in the constitution and one of the bits that some countries will try to save. When I spoke to the Italian Prime Minister Roman Prodi just before the Declaration of Berlin recently he said this was one of the main priorities for the European Union, adding that countries should only be allowed to veto foreign policy in exceptional circumstances.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner
Benita Ferrero-Waldner: From Vienna to Brussels
I observed that he of all people, caught up in a row about Afghanistan with his own coalition partners, knew how difficult it was getting agreement even at a national level, but he brushed this aside. I suppose that although the EU rarely speaks with one voice, when it does it may be listened to closely.

The plan is not just to give Mr Solana a nicer, or more logical title. It would be a powerful new role. At the moment he answers to the Council, in other words the governments of the 27 EU countries. This wouldn't completely change, but crucially, under the constitution's proposals, he would take over all the functions of the commissioner for external relations, currently the Austrian Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

This would give him access to a bigger budget, an embryonic diplomatic service and a seat on the commission, as vice-president. This is important because the commission can propose laws and policies. He would have the legal basis to become more of a player, rather than a follower of policy set down by others. Being at the pinnacle of two streams of power is known in the jargon as "double-hatting".

Anyone who can wear two such hats with out getting too big for their boots... well I take my hat off to them.

Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

Instead of bashing the EU's hard power capabilities or bemoaning the United States' seeming lack of interest in soft power utilization, the debate should focus more on strengthening foreign policy cooperation across the Atlantic... In spite of critics' claims, the US and the EU are natural allies, and they have enormous potential to solve global problems by cooperating in a 'good cop, bad cop' strategy.
Colin Hauck, Washington, DC USA

The EU is the biggest problem. All that is done is finger-waving, then idle gestures. There is no muscle, there is no authority. Letting the aggressor know all you're capable of is negotiation, without serious force behind it, isn't a deterrent, it make them emboldened. Are you going to talk your way out of the Nuclear Jihad, since you're doing everything you can to assist them in their insanity?
Aaron Becker, USA

I think it is important to grant recognition to the fact that in spite of all the perceived incoherence and negativities, the EU is still a work in progress. What would be the purpose of creating an alleged "hard power" when one already exists; namely the United States? The purpose of the EU resonates within its diplomatic stance on worldly issues and events. Everyone has seen the American war machine in action.
Jonathan Wingrove, Toronto, Canada

To Chris, Aberystwyth, Wales: I think you'll find that the US nuclear umbrella gave Europe its longest period of peace. The EU will never work, too many languages and cultures and histories to create a single policy on anything important.
Craig Seattle WA , Seattle WA USA

When was I - or my fellow citizens - last asked whether or not I wanted to cede British foreign policy to a supra-national entity with federalist tendencies? Whether or not Britain should accept the creation of an EU Foreign Minister is a matter that should be decided by the country as a whole in a national referendum.
Max Kaye, Stratford upon Avon

The world has come to see that no country has a military capable of enforcing its objectives - not even the USA. Soft power is good. Ethical soft power is best. Europe is getting there - on the ethical front trade is the biggest weakness, but we will get there, through slow cooperative intelligent evolution. Military power is great for defence, but not much admired otherwise - unless very clearly backed by near unanimous support from the United Nations.
George Taylor, Oxford UK

The success of the Bosnian mission underscores why America and the EU need each other. Many EU governments are reluctant to send their troops into a hot war, but are happy to do peacekeeping work. Conversely, the US is not adept at peacekeeping, but there is the political and civic will to send our troops into harm's way during a hot war.
Zach Smith, Bloomington, USA

It would appear that the author is confusing the EU with NATO for all the peace efforts that have gone on over the last years. The EU does not have anything more than hot air and lies. It is completely undemocratic and fraudulent. And as for holding its hand out to former eastern bloc countries, well the EU is a socialist/communist ideal after all. With the Soviet Union having failed so spectacularly, socialism/communism needs a new breath of life and funds to sustain it, and they are using our money to provide it.
BigEnglander, Abroad

Yes, why not another Commissioner, Vice-President etc ... for Foreign Affairs, i.e. in the best EU democratic tradition, another non-elected European official.
Chris, Brussels-Belgium

The EU should focus primarily on neighbourhood policy. As long as CFSP remains in the 2nd pillar, a workable, united foreign policy can only be a dream. The EU has had outstanding success in using 'soft power' (trade incentives etc)to ecnourage democratic reform in Turkey and North Africa and this is what it should stick to!
Vicki, Oxford, UK

EU is weak... and always will be. Technicly is (in most cases)impossible for so many member states to stand like one. Every nation has its ownes priorities with respect to history and traditions.
Petr, Brno,Czech republic

The EU has given Europe its longest period of peace for millennia. If 'EU foreign policy' can similarly ease tensions elsewhere in the world, this can only be good. The hard approach to peacekeeping favoured by the US seems to make things worse. "Nothing much happened" may not make a good headline, but to the ordinary citizen in an area of unrest, it is a wonderful blessing.
chris, Aberystwyth, Wales

The author makes the false assumption that just becouse there are EU soldiers in Bosnia and Serbia that it solved the problem. What about the bombing of Belgrade? Was that done by EU jets? No,I did not think so. Until the EU actually solves something rather than making alot of noise and waiting for someone else to do something the world will ignore it as an entity.
Michael Ansonoff, Ridgefield Park, New Jersey

Claerly the readers from the US have dillusions of grandeur regarding their participation on the world stage. EU jets bombing Belgrade - well RAF at least. Please US readers become better informed and stop beliving the utter tripe fed to you by the flag waving US politicians and media
Andrew Wild, Woodstock, IL USA

Any good work that the EU does overseas is more than offset by the damage that its crazy trade policy does. Any prisoner freed or Government comdemmed is wasted when EU trade policies contribute to the mass starvation of 1.5 million people in Zambia(1999 to 2000)
Nevan Lancaster, papamoa New Zealand

But what about EU trade policy? Surely this is intricately tied to the EU's foreign agenda. Under the Cotonou Partnership Agreement signed in 2000, the EU has whittled away the preferential market access it once offered to its African 'partners.' It has also damaged pan-African solidarity by insisting that African countries sign regional Economic Partnership Agreements - potentially pitting neighbours into a 'race-to-the-bottom' for foreign investment. Policy space is also restricted for ACP partners wishing to protect their nascent industries from being flooded with cheap goods from China and other competitors. All in the name of 'liberalisation'
Mark Langan, Manchester

Just another way for the EU to waste money only to stop when the whole union breaks apart, as it will do, it's built on sand.
roger, birmingham

I'm curious. If the EU is to have a common foreign policy, what if one or two memberstates disagree and loudly announce this in public? Wouldn't the whole facade be blown off? Who will take an EU foreign minister seriously if there is public dissent? How would we prevent this EU foreign policy from becoming the Franco-German foreign policy? So far, the EU's track record in foreign relations is not so good. Just look at the effects of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies. The EU has all but destroyed the livelyhood of west-African farmers and fisherman. Maybe the CAP and CFP are not officially foreign policy, but they do have some serious 'foreign' consequences. Through socalled 'third country agreements' the EU is now fishing in African waters and the local fishermen cannot compete. They become jobless, desperate and then they try to get here. Apparently, there is consensus amongst experts that the EU's flagship policies are to blame.
Marcel, The Hague, the Netherlands

I doubt the EU should become another "policeman", following the same approach the USA have to world issues. If the EU is going to play a major role on the global stage it should act with wisdom, and not interfere too much with other countries' political systems the way the US did. The EU can and should become a peacefull "advisor" regarding global conflicts and not a military force or a diplomatic tool to force others to follow its rules. It should convince rather than impose.
Dimitri, Paris, France

We must do more and we do have the legal framework - in theory. The Amsterdam Treaty says: "The Member States shall support the Union's external and security policy actively and unreservedly in a spirit of loyalty and mutual solidarity. ... They shall refrain from any action which is contrary to the interests of the Union or likely to impair its effectiveness as a cohesive force in international relations. The Council shall ensure that these principles are complied with." These obligations do not square with the current behaviour of some Member States, notably the UK and Denmark and some others (with regard to Iraq) and Poland, the UK, Denmark and the Czech Republic (with regard to US missile defence). In both cases, it's the US that is trying to play "divide and rule". We Europeans must wake up and defend our own interests.
Ronald Grünebaum, Brussels, Belgium

No one outside of Europe cares about the EU's foreign policy because Europe's military capabilities are so limited. While we sent powerless diplomats to deal with world crises, the US sends entire fleets. How can we compete for attention with the US in such a manner?
Jerome Muller, Cents, Luxembourg

Jerome says: "While we sent powerless diplomats to deal with world crises, the US sends entire fleets. How can we compete for attention with the US in such a manner?" Do we want to compete with it? Diplomacy backed by economic and military power (we have 2 nuclear powers in europe, we are not weak) is surely a better solution than a carrier battle group.
Jim, Southern France

I think jerome has a point, I disagree that other countries don't take the eu seriously but if the eu had a proper unified military policy then it would be taken more seriously as it would have the power to back up its promises
Daniel Wynne, London

The EU is indeed portrayed solely as a bad thing in mainstream British media, the man on the street not knowing anything about it except that which Murdoch deigns to tell him. However, those of us who do know what it does are indeed aware of the good that "pressure from the EU" can do and will do in the future. It is a benign force for positive reform and growing in influence all the time. Was it not through pressure from the EU that Russia eventually signed up to Kyoto?
Graeme, Redditch, UK

I concur with Graeme,the EU does a huge amount of good works internationally in the fields of humanitarian demining, post conflict recovery and development, human rights, social justice, democratic reforms to name just a few areas of action. Unlike the US, the EU does not tie recipients of foreign aid in to trade and foreign policy restrictions. It's about time the EU appointed a foreign minister. Apart from everything else this would give increased focus to foreign aid and EU policies in the wider world.
Matt, Farnborough, UK

So what you are saying is that you would rather fight the tabloids for a good headline than satisfy the mandate of the BBC to provide fair and objective reporting? I thought the point of the BBC license fee was to give you the freedom to write what you should write and not be driven solely by what the public wants to read.
David, Bern, Switerland

The European Union needs to take a more active role in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping, and collective security. Even as far away as the Pacific, the State of Hawaii passed House Resolution 22 this year which requested the European Union to take an active role in bringing to a conclusion the ongoing conflict and genocide in Western Sudan. For decades the United States has been the leader in humanitarian aid and peacekeeping, but America is stretched to thin across the world with so many conflicts. It is time for the European Union to take responsibility for the affairs of their hemisphere and to take on roles that have traditionally been occupied by the United States.
Daniel Paul de Gracia II, Waipahu, Hawaii, United States of America

In response to Daniel Paul de Gracia II, I think you need to remove your "Pro-US" rose tinted glasses and look at the facts, the EU including the UK provide an extraordinary amount of man power to UN and non UN Peace Keeping mandate's to keep the status quo in volatile areas of the world. Whilst I am Pro both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, I am under no illusion or belief that these are "Peace keeping" situations. Maybe you should look at some figures. Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq are not "Peace Keeping" in the real sense of the word, they are aggressive actions. But again I am Pro both Iraq and Afghanistan. And just a note on your use of the word Hemisphere, parts of Europe are to the west of the Prime Meridian. The same as the US.
Tony, Auckland, New Zealand (Ex-Pat)

The foreign policy of EU within Europe has been a great success. By holding a hand out to countries such as Serbia and Ukraine, they have removed them from the Russian sphere of influence and encouraged democratic reform. Supporting these and other countries such as Georgia is where they need to concentrate. On the wider world this might be more difficult as there is not the promise of EU membership that can be used as leaverage. .The US will still dominate for a good few decades yet, but where the EU can make a huge difference is in nation building, especially in Africa, something the US have admitted they don't/can't/won't do.
mark, Kingston, UK

Though a fan of the EU's move into foreign policy, I am very reluctant to see the mooted position of foreign minister being created. The CFSP and the commission's external relations policy, are two very different beasts and I am sceptical of how they will evolve if the two are merged. I agree with the previous poster that the commission's external relations policy has been largely benign, the CFSP is more of a realpolitik instrument. Mixing the two positions would I fear turn a lot of EU ER aid into bargaining tools for the CFSP. Besides that, as Mr. Mardell has pointed out, it will invite the foreign minister to begin inputting more of his/her own objectives into the mix, instead of slavishly following the unanimous will of the council. I don't believe the EU is ready to abandon unanimity in foeign relations decisions. I am sceptical that it ever will be.
Paul Tighe, Dublin

Paul Tighe of Dublin is sceptical that the EU will ever be ready to abandon unanimity in its foreign relations and I for one hope he's right. The idea that any state should be prevented from following its own foreign policy course of action (or forced to follow one it doesn't agree with) because of the collective will of the other members is anathema to a lot of people - pro and anti-EU - who wish to retain full nation state independence. I am pro-EU (in matters regarding economics, commerce and cultural exchange), but completely opposed to the notion of "ever closer union" in all spheres. Mr Prodi's dream of a European Federation, with all the trappings of a single state (like a unified foreign policy & foreign minister), cannot work and is utterly detached from the dreams of most of the people he would like to represent.
JA Booth, North Yorkshire, UK

I love the way the EU wants to give the impression that it cares for its neighbours. I have not seen much news on the continuing bullying the Baltics countries get from Russia. Did the BBC know that Russia wants Estonia to change their history books to say that Russia liberated Estonia and not to mention that they were in fact occupied and forced into the Soviet Union and also to forget the attrocities of the men and women they killed during their occupation. As well as Putin and his buddies want the Estonia government to make all schools teach Russian at schools as a compulsary second language. Is this fair? I am very sceptical that the EU will be a practical organisation in the future due to the widespread ignorance it gives to smaller countries.
Vince, Birmingham, UK

Europe is arguably the worlds most powerful soft power. It has the power to transform corrupt dictatorships into developed democratic nations. This power is however very short range and extends barely beyond its immediate neighbours. It's long range soft power is based on its huge aid budget but its aims are not clear as to what change it wants to achieve for its euros. European hard power is in a mess. Politicians are misguidedly look to establish a euro army and HQ. However they could achieve far more my reforming there conscript standing armies into professional expeditionary forces with strategic transport capabilities. If they achieved this transformation Europe would be a major if not preeminent world power.
Thomas Lister, London

The EU is and always will be 2nd comings to the US foreign policy. At least until the EU grows a backbone and has a military capable of enforcing it's objectives.
Xira, Dallas, Texas

The benefit of having the EU determining member states approach to international relations is best demonstrated where their is a unilateral approach that helps to remove the bias from national member states interests taking precedent in international relations. The basic problem with international relations is the lack of a consistent and joined up approach from the countries in Europe e.g. UK intervenes because it suits its national interests, even if these are opposite to EU interests. (the old Sovereignty argument) Letting the EU determine and set International Policy is one thing, getting the member states to commit their national resources to European commitments is the real challenge.
Glen, Glasgow UK

It's gratifying to see that Hawaii wishes to join the EU but I think they're getting a bit ahead of themselves submitting pleas to the parliament, no representation without taxation as the old saw goes. The EU is the first 'empire' the world has seen where countries are queueing up to join. Perhaps this is precisely because the EU doesn't rock up with huge armies and precipitate a war. The EU carrot is more effective than the US stick which is why South American nations prefer to deal with Europe than NAFTA.
Sean, Dublin, Ireland

To say that EU foriegn policy is limited by its lack of military power demonstrates a limited knowledge of where the real power lies in world politics. The (not sufficiently utilised) power of the Single European Market (SEM) is a much greater tool than military prowess in most regions of the world. Access, or the denial of access, to the SEM (the biggest market in the world) is the greatest tool at the EU's disposal. As a supporter of international conflict resolution and the responsibility to protect, I do wish to see more involvement of the EU in peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention, but this is not the tool which will make the EU a major global power in the 21st century.
Jamie , Rochdale, UK

The last thing the world needs is "another USA" that gets mingled in everybody else's internal affairs and promotes its own selfish interests in the name of "sorting out everbody else's problems". We have done that for centuries, exploiting the world and killing everybody who didn't want to be exploited. Let's not go back to the old times...
John Sullivan, Hong Kong

"It is a benign force for positive reform and growing in influence all the time." I'm shocked people can say this with a straight face. A "benign" force? Many internal and external the EU would argue that. That the EU has no real capacity (and will likely never have a major capacity for) 'hard' force, and that it thus relies on 'soft' power (such as economic coercion), it is nevertheless not incapable of being an overbearing, intrusive entity. And you truly believe it is "mushrooming" in influence? As an avid reader of news, blogs and discussion forums in eastern Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa, and as a frequent business visitor to Asia and the Americas, the EU is seen today as little different than was western ('free') Europe in the past. When it comes to the voices that command respect, all ears and eyes are on the United States, China, India and Russia. The U.S. for its obvious overweening influence in seemingly all spheres. China and India for their economic potential. And Russia because it still has the capability to cause serious problems militarily should it continue its current path. The EU is not seen as dynamic, nor as particularly capable of doing much more than talking a good talk. Everyone is aware of the EU's aggregate economic size, but they are also aware that its economic resources are already consumed on internal matters. It may, indeed, become a "soft power" superpower, but that alone is not going to earn it the role many Europhiles wish.
Michael, US

The real problem for the EU is in the different ways it is perceived by its members. As long as one or more of the core states remains euro-sceptic, the EU will never be able to develop and grow as it should The EU constitution shows what happens. In France it became a vote on the government and not on the EU. As a result it failed and Europe lost out. The EU has enormous potential to be a major force in the world. It needs to convince the member states that this should happen.
Neil Walton, Bicester, UK

There is as much confusion about what the EU can and cannot do, as what it is and is not. What the EU DOES have at its disposable, and what is highlighted in this article is 'soft power'. Hard power, tanks, bombs, planes and warships, can only do so much, namely blowing stuff up. The EUs soft power is basically putting back together what has been blown up, economically, socially and politically. The EU (and its members) are by far the worlds largest overseas aid donors.
Matt , Sheffield, UK

EU has a lot of economic clout but at the moment the 27 member states have not got their act together. Sean (Dublin, Ireland) is spot on about EU's strenght.
Tuula, turku, finland

I don't know where Mark Langan gets his information, but he is right; The EU "talk the talk" but don't keep their promises, look at the sugar protocols, and the "banana wars" for example. they signed Lome & Cotonou yet; now they are backing out of these so called Partnership Agreements, REPA's now EPA's? Divide and rule? what next,Partners in "WRITING" but not in real life! How can they be trusted, look at Eastern Europe, they were tricked with big promises into joining up, but what next for them??????? Alan David Pena. Brussels, Belgium
Alan David Pena, Brussels, Belgium

Thomas Lister wrote "Europe is arguably the worlds most powerful soft power. It has the power to transform corrupt dictatorships into developed democratic nations." Rubbish. There is no such thing as soft power. When Milosevic had set the Balkans on fire, what did that "most powerful soft power"? Nothing. Ethnic cleansing went on unabatted until the US stepped in and forced NATO members to act. Today a few bulgar nurses are held hostage and their life threatened by Lybia's insane tyran. What does Europe to free them? Nothing. Europe is just the weakest bunch of soft hypocrits on earth, ready to appease terrorists, autocrats and dictators around the world. And then pretend they did it for "peace in our times". We should know better ...
Laurent Szyster, Brussels

Chris (Wales) says: "The EU has given Europe its longest period of peace for millennia...." A few years ago I met an instructor from a German military college and --trying to be a 'good American'-- asked him when the US presence might end. He said "Oh, I wish that they will never leave. For two thousand years we had war in Europe, and now, none." I wish I'd asked for his opinion on the EU's role in this brief respite.
Gary Fowler, Austin, Texas, USA

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