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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 12:58 GMT
Analysis: Europe's global gamble
The EU's foreign and security chief, Javier Solana, and Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim
The EU is heavily involved in Balkan diplomacy
By Dr Steven Everts of the Centre for European Reform

The European Union is increasingly trying to assert itself on the global stage.

EU foreign affairs chiefs have travelled widely in recent weeks, visiting amongst other places the Balkans, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Moldova and Kaliningrad - the Russian Baltic enclave between Poland and Lithuania.

The strongest evidence of the EU's efforts to project its values and defend its interests came when Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for External Relations, and Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative, visited the Middle East.

Chris Patten
Patten: Tough warning to the Israelis was an unusual step
Unusually for EU foreign policy, some tough talking took place in the Middle East. For instance, Chris Patten told the Israeli leadership that the economic blockade of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was harmful to the peace process and could not be justified on security grounds.

What is behind this EU drive to "punch its weight" in the world? And will it be successful?

In the past, EU foreign policy was largely a matter of passing resolutions and granting economic assistance. Javier Solana recently said that the mentality of the EU was very much like that of the World Bank: it was a place where people handed out money.

Financial resources

Diplomatic incoherence, military weakness and deficient external credibility all hampered the effectiveness of EU foreign policy.

And despite repeated attempts to enhance its global role, the EU could never quite shake off that damning label of being an economic giant but a political pygmy. As a result, the Americans exerted global political leadership pretty much by default.

Recently, the EU has been trying to wield its considerable financial resources in a more focused and more overtly political way - but it may be raising expectations that it will be unable to fulfil - and in particular it has yet to prove that the Middle East is a sensible focus for its diplomatic energies.

'Soft' security

With escalating levels of political rhetoric and violence on all sides, it is uncertain that the EU can deliver a Middle East peace settlement where the US has failed.

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon before meeting EU delegation
The EU asked Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to lift a blockade of Palestinian areas
Still, the EU can and should try to facilitate an agreement. The EU's strengths are in the field of confidence-building measures and other "soft security" instruments.

These types of foreign policy instruments can be usefully deployed to create the circumstances that might reduce levels of distrust.

More generally, the EU is about overcoming historical enmities and about subjecting inter-state relations to the rule of law. In other words, the EU's system of governance has much to offer to the region.

But realistically, this sort of EU help can only come into play after a basic peace agreement has been reached.

The Middle East is perhaps not the most obvious place for the EU to try to enhance its diplomatic profile. Given the intractable nature of the region's conflicts, the chances of success are slim.

And because EU foreign policy is still a relatively new venture, a possible failure is not what Europe needs right now. The reverse is also true: nothing succeeds like success.

Opinion divided

Moreover, member-states are more divided over the Middle East than they are over the Balkans or Russia. These divisions will inevitably put limits on how effective EU policy will be.

And finally, regions such as Russia and the Balkans arguably involve European interests more directly. Many therefore argue that the EU should focus its efforts on those regions instead.

The EU should certainly avoid over-promising and under-delivering. But equally, the demands upon the EU are such that it simply cannot avoid playing a global role.

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See also:

13 Mar 01 | Middle East
EU urges Israel to end blockade
13 Feb 01 | Europe
EU team quizzes Kuchma
17 Mar 01 | Europe
EU pledges support to Macedonia
19 Mar 01 | Europe
Diplomacy quickens over Macedonia
08 Feb 01 | Europe
EU softens line on Milosevic
24 Jan 01 | South Asia
EU's Patten on India mission
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