EU foreign policy

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. 

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.” 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.