Page last updated at 10:23 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 11:23 UK

EU seeks to extend global reach

The choices made by voters in next month's European Parliament elections will have an influence - albeit indirect - on EU foreign policy.

European affairs analyst William Horsley examines how MEPs now have a bigger voice on the global stage.

Today opinion polls show that most people across Europe think decisions on foreign policy should be taken jointly within the European Union, rather than by national governments alone.

French police in EU's Eulex mission in Kosovo
French police are part of the EU stabilisation mission in Kosovo

In 1999 European leaders were spurred into action by the shame of having to rely on superior US military power to defeat the Serbian armed forces and stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, in Europe's own backyard.

They agreed to beef up the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy with extra security and defence ambitions. They said that Europe must have "the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces" for crisis management and even for peace-making.

In practice the daily coordination of policies among officials or ministers of the EU member states means that Brussels, rather than the various national capitals, is Europe's centre of decision-making on most cross-border and international issues. These range from combating terrorism to energy security.

'Pooled sovereignty'

Yet Europe's experiment in "pooling sovereignty" among 27 countries is poorly understood by EU citizens.

Pollsters say the voter turnout for the coming European Parliament elections may be the lowest ever. If so an opportunity will have been missed to explain the machinery of an emerging European layer of government to a confused European population and to seek its consent.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana
Mr Solana is managing the EU's role in various international hotspots

The election results may show the scale of voters' discontent - the sense that big decisions are taken remotely and above their heads.

The European Parliament has little influence over the big ticket foreign policy questions like the use of military force.

But the parliament is a key part of the complex machinery of Europe's model of "pooled sovereignty", with sweeping budget powers and a direct say in decisions like the entry of Turkey and other candidate countries into the EU club.

The parliament's influence will be much increased if the long-stalled Lisbon Treaty is ratified in all the EU states in the coming months. That depends on whether the Irish reverse their earlier "No" vote on the treaty in a second referendum later this year.

The treaty also gives new executive powers to the EU's High Representative for Foreign Policy, including leadership of what will become the world's largest diplomatic service.

As for the EU's ambition to become a big "global player", the official verdict is that it is now achieved.

Global role

Javier Solana is the EU's veteran High Representative for Foreign Policy. Members of his team talk confidently of the EU as an indispensible power, whose crisis management is needed to deal with the world's big conflicts and disputes, wherever they occur.

It is a bold claim. But the Council of the EU, which brings together ministers from the 27 member states, already acts like a fledgling European foreign ministry. It coordinates policy on a host of international issues. From their headquarters in a landmark pink granite building in Brussels, Council officials list some recent EU achievements:

• Resolving the war between Russia and Georgia last August.

  • Taking the lead for the international community in dealing with Iran to contain its nuclear ambitions.
  • Playing a key part in drawing up and funding the "roadmap" for Middle East peace based on a two-state solution for Israel and a Palestinian state.
  • Deploying more than 20 missions worldwide in response to crises, from Kosovo to a new naval mission to deter piracy off the Somali coast.

Yet the EU also has severe critics, inside Europe and beyond, for whom its actions on the world stage are timid, confused or misguided. They say:

  • That the EU is a paper tiger which has allowed Russia to claim a "sphere of privileged interest" throughout the former Soviet space. Europe's internal divisions and its energy dependence on Russia encouraged Moscow to impose its will by force in the dispute with Georgia over breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now other countries in the region also live in fear.
  • In Afghanistan the Europeans, with some exceptions, have been risk-averse, sending too few combat troops to help America win a vital battle against global terrorism.
  • The EU has been too obsessed with building structures for itself that duplicate those of Nato, but has failed to show the "beef" by adding to Europe's real military capabilities.
  • US President Barack Obama chastised Europeans for "casual" and "insidious" anti-Americanism. His words point to a concern that some European powers have defined their core interests in ways that may place the unity of the transatlantic alliance at risk.

An insider in the European Council acknowledged that dealings with Russia are "the most difficult point" for the EU's would-be "common" foreign policy.

"Some EU states, like Germany, France, Italy and Spain, see Russia as a strategic partner," I was told.

But others in Central and Eastern Europe now worry that the EU cannot be relied on to back them in the face of Russian violations of the agreed rules of international behaviour, like the shutdown of Russian gas to parts of Europe in January.

So the issues at stake for the people of Europe may be confusing, but they are not small.

William Horsley is media freedom representative for the Association of European Journalists.

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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