EU foreign policy

France's Laurent Fabius, left, and Britain's William Hague co-authored the letter to Cathy Ashton.

[UPDATE] During Monday’s appearance with Kerry, which includes a town hall meeting with European Commission staff, Barroso is expected to announce a new “comprehensive package” of EU humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, according to officials briefed on the initiative.

This weekend’s announcement by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, that Washington is prepared to double the amount of non-lethal aid it is sending to the mainstream opposition in Syria kicks off what is expected to be a busy week in Brussels on the issue.

Kerry is due in the Belgian capital for this week’s Nato foreign ministers’ meeting, where Syria will be debated, and officials familiar with Kerry’s schedule said there was even a discussion of his attending the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. That has since been ruled out – though Kerry will meet with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, on Monday ahead of the Nato ministerial.

Still, the Monday EU foreign ministers’ meeting will be the latest venue in the ongoing Franco-British effort to lift the EU’s arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. EU diplomats said they do not believe a definitive decision will be made at the meeting, but it comes just weeks before the entire sanctions regime is set to expire at the end of next month, so the deliberations are likely to become even more spirited.

For those looking to read up on the topic ahead of the Monday meeting, Brussels Blog has got its hands on the joint letter Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, and his British counterpart William Hague sent to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, last month arguing for a change in policy – we’ve posted it here, in both French and English. Read more

The European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has been one of the staunchest supporters of the proposed Nabucco pipeline, a 3,900-kilometer behemoth that would carry natural gas from the Caspian region to Austria.

For the commission, Nabucco represents the backbone of a new southern corridor that would break Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas. It has touted the project repeatedly over the years, and has also opened its wallet, committing up to €200m in funding.

But in a recent conversation with Brussels Blog, Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, made a departure from the usual script and gave support to the growing suspicion that the full Nabucco may be a lost cause. Read more

Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is expected to make a little progress today.  I stress “a little”.  In most respects, the cause of Turkish membership of the EU is in worse shape than at any time since EU governments recognised Turkey as an official candidate in 2004.

The progress, minimal though it is, takes the form of an agreement by the EU and Turkey to open formal talks on food security. This is one of the 35 chapters, or policy areas, that a country must complete before it can join the EU.  It means that Turkey will have opened 13 chapters in total.  Of these, however, only one chapter has been closed.  If this is progress, the snail is king of the race track. Read more

How time flies when you’re having fun.  I spent the best part of Wednesday trailing Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister, around Brussels.  After about four hours it dawned on me that, no matter how strange and disturbing some of his statements, his style is in certain respects remarkably similar to that of a European politician.  That is to say, he repeats his best lines wherever he goes, presumably in the belief that if you say something often enough, in as many different places as possible, at least some people will swallow your message and regurgitate it to others. Read more

Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean.  It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.

The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union.  The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea.  It was not a bad idea in principle.  But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM. Read more

If the Greek debt crisis is teaching the European Union some harsh lessons about the design of its monetary union, no less serious is the message coming from Ukraine about the effectiveness of EU foreign policy.  Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine’s newly elected president, agreed a deal with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia last week that gave Moscow a 25-year extension of the right to station its Black Sea fleet in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.  In return, Ukraine secured a 30 per cent cut in the price of Russian gas deliveriesRead more

The election of Dervis Eroglu as Turkish Cypriot president appears at first sight to deal a severe blow to the latest United Nations-sponsored efforts at solving the Cyprus problem.  But appearances can be deceptive.  There may, in fact, be an opportunity for a breakthrough.  Crucially, however, it will require the involvement of the European Union.

Eroglu, 72, is usually dubbed a “hardline nationalist” in the international media on account of his long-standing commitment to Turkish Cypriot independence.  This is to miss the point that the Turkish Cypriots are economically dependent on Turkey and Eroglu can hardly act in defiance of the government in Ankara.  It is in the Turks’ wider diplomatic interests to bring about a Cyprus settlement.  They have already made it plain to Eroglu that they expect him to behave constructively. Read more

Setting up the European Union’s new diplomatic service was never going to be easy.  Turf wars between the EU’s 27 member-states and the European Commission were inevitable, and the ever meddlesome European Parliament was certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to stick its oar in.  But if the EU doesn’t get this right, the world’s other big powers will never be convinced that the Europeans are serious about operating a coherent common foreign policy. Read more

The most important speech delivered in Europe last week came from Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s full-time president.  It had real depth and did not try to conceal the EU’s problems behind a mask of unconvincing optimism.

The speech addressed how to strengthen Europe’s role in a world in which the Old Continent appears in danger of slipping into faster relative decline unless it gets its act together.  The speech had much to say about economic policy, but it was the foreign policy content that was more original.  This was Van Rompuy’s first detailed exposition of his views on the subject. Read more

Nothing illustrates the sensitivity of the European Union’s relationship with Israel better than the statement which EU foreign ministers issued on Monday complaining about the use of forged European passports in last month’s killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas commander, in Dubai.  The statement contained several sentences that were masterpieces of waffle, such as the following: “The EU … believes that its passports remain among the most secure in the world, fully meeting all international standards.”

The statement was, however, remarkable chiefly for its reluctance to spell out that the EU holds Israel responsible for the flagrant misuse of identity documents belonging to European citizens.  It could hardly be otherwise, of course.  There is insufficient evidence at this stage to state with certainty that Israel’s agents used the false passports and killed Mabhouh.  Instead, it was left to a couple of EU foreign ministers to conduct some finger-wagging in one-on-one meetings with Avigdor Lieberman, their combative Israeli counterpart, who just happened to be in Brussels on Monday. Read more

Two thoughts spring to mind when you consider the appointment of João Vale de Almeida, a Portuguese Eurocrat, as the European Union’s next ambassador to the US.  The first is that the EU seems to be retreating from its experiment of placing a political heavyweight in Washington to speak up for Europe.  John Bruton, the EU’s outgoing envoy, is a former Irish prime minister whose face was well-known in the White House and on Capitol Hill when he got the job in 2004.

Vale de Almeida is familiar to certain US officials – he has been the European Commission’s top liaison man for G8 and G20 meetings.  But as a civil servant who started his career with the Commission in Lisbon back in 1982, he has never been elected to office, has never served as a government minister and altogether lacks the profile of someone like Bruton.  Americans are already struggling to recall which two figures were chosen last year as the EU’s first full-time president and new head of foreign policy.  Now they have a third obscure European name to remember. Read more

President Barack Obama’s decision not to travel to Spain in May for a US-European Union summit does not come as a great surprise to EU policymakers.  They knew weeks ago that he had gone cool on the idea.  Nonetheless, it will hurt.  It will be read as a signal from the White House that the president doesn’t think the meeting would be especially productive.  And that speaks volumes about how other powers, even allied countries such as the US, view the EU as a force on the global stage.

“An unsentimental President Obama has already lost patience with a Europe lacking coherence and purpose,” wrote Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro in a report last November for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.  “In a post-American world, the United States knows it needs effective partners.  If Europe cannot step up, the US will look for other privileged partners to do business with.” Read more

A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008.  Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday.  He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together.  But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.

A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18.  Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister. Read more

Are they just teething problems?  Or is something more serious at stake?  One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.

Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake.  Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros.  At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not.  She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort.  However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti.  A perfectly sensible response. Read more

The European Union should be pleased with the outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election.  Not because the politician who received the most votes was former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the most pro-Russian of the main candidates.  Rather, because the election for the most part met the very high standards of democracy, legality and fairness that the EU had demanded of Ukraine to sustain the process of bringing the country closer to the 27-nation bloc.

It was a genuine contest among a variety of distinctive candidates, and the second, knock-out round on February 7 between Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, the incumbent prime minister, will be a genuine contest, too.  Compare this with the tainted presidential election of November 2004, which precipitated the Orange Revolution that propelled Viktor Yushchenko to power.  In terms of democracy and the political maturity of society, Ukraine has progressed a long way over the past five years. Read more

It passed largely unnoticed by the outside world, but perhaps the most intriguing event in European foreign policy last week was a visit paid to Belarus by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi.  The European Union has kept Belarus at arm’s length for years because of the repressive domestic policies of President Alexander Lukashenko.  Berlusconi was the first western head of government to go to Minsk for well over a decade.

There was something surreal about the visit.  Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, praised Berlusconi as “a global, planetary man of politics, our friend”.  Berlusconi responded: “Thank you, and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everyone can see.”  One can only assume this was an example of Berlusconi’s famous sense of humour. Read more

There is an amusing and rather revealing story doing the rounds in Brussels about a conversation that took place at last month’s European Union-Russia summit in Stockholm.

In the course of a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a mischievous allusion to the EU’s imminent institutional changes, under which Barroso will for the first time deal with a full-time EU president representing the bloc’s 27 governments – Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s ex-prime minister. Read more

Next week’s summit of European Union leaders faces an important choice on Turkey.  Should the EU toughen existing measures that are holding up Turkey’s EU accession talks, because of Ankara’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic?  Or should the EU recognise that this would send completely the wrong message, just when Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders are trying to reach a comprehensive settlement of the long-standing Cyprus dispute?

Precisely because the EU is divided on the Turkish question – the Greek Cypriot-run government of Cyprus wants a strong line, and other countries are split between supporters and opponents of Turkey’s entry into the EU – it seems unlikely that a consensus can be reached in favour of placing additional obstacles in the path of Turkey’s negotiations. Read more

As of today the European Union is going about its business under a new set of rules known as the Lisbon treaty.  In Brussels this is universally seen as a good thing because, to quote Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-presidents of the European Parliament’s Greens faction, the treaty “sets the framework for increased European democracy, better decision-making, higher levels of transparency and closer participation of European citizens”.

Well, perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn’t.  One thing’s for sure: the new arrangements strengthen the European Parliament – hence the enthusiasm of Harms and Cohn-Bendit.  But the Lisbon treaty’s reforms are like the ingredients of a good dinner.  Use them intelligently, and all will be well.  Forget to put in the garlic and the peppers, and it will taste terrible.  In other words, wise leadership and a sense of responsibility to something higher than one’s domestic political audience are going to be necessary to make Lisbon work effectively. Read more

So it looks as if it is to be Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, as the full-time president, and Catherine Ashton, Britain’s EU trade commissioner, as the foreign policy supremo.  This is the culmination of eight years of efforts, starting with the EU’s Laeken Declaration of 2001, to reform the bloc’s institutions and give the EU a more dynamic world profile.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, thinks the EU had a historic opportunity in its grasp and flunked it – at least as far as the full-time presidency is concerned.  The British government itself was saying more or less the same thing until tonight.  It was adamant that the EU needed a big-hitter as president to convince the rest of the world that the EU was going places.  Now it has participated in a classic EU trade-off that has produced exactly the result it said would be no use to anyone. Read more