Solana steps up to show EU is big enough to fill Dubya’s boots

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Series Details Vol 7, No.14, 5.4.01, p12
Publication Date 05/04/2001
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Date: 05/04/01

The European Union is increasingly taking centre stage as a serious foreign policy player while the US administration rethinks its strategic priorities. Simon Taylor reports

DURING US President George W. Bush's first 100 days in office a new ethnic conflict in the Balkans has been damped down and hopes of improved relations between North and South Korea have been kept alive.

But don't give 'Dubya' credit for these achievements, even though the US often has the lead role in shaping world foreign policy. Instead, it has been the European Union, which usually watches from the wings, taking centre stage.

Its impressive diplomatic success over the past two weeks has prompted observers to suggest the EU is finally emerging as a serious foreign-policy player, stepping into the shoes of a US administration rethinking its global priorities.

Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana helped bring together ethnic Albanian groups and ruling parties in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Swedish presidency has planned a high-level visit to Pyongyang and Seoul in May to boost reconciliation, charmingly known as the sunshine policy.

And finally, after years of complaining that it wants to be a player and not just a payer in the Middle East peace process, the EU has the chance to act as honest broker at a time when the Palestinians see Bush as firmly pro-Israel.

John Palmer of the European Policy Centre wrote glowingly that the Union's Stockholm summit "may be remembered in the history books for what it demonstrated about the evolution of EU foreign and security policy".

Yet it would be premature to conclude from the three developments that the Union is finally starting to meet its own ambitions as a major political force. In many ways, the EU is merely filling the vacuum left by the Bush administration in parts of the world that the new US team sees as a lower strategic priority, especially in the Balkans.

In the case of Macedonia, the EU's diplomatic efforts have been crucial in preventing the multi-ethnic state from descending into widespread violence. For perhaps the first time in the Union's history it was abundantly clear that EU High Representative Solana was able to achieve a breakthrough that others would have found difficult.

Thanks to his knowledge of the region and its problems and his relationship with the key actors in both ethnic camps, Solana created the trust essential for the parties to work together on peaceful solutions to their differences.

"You need someone who could go down there, knows the situation and the people - a facilitator in human terms - who they would see as honest broker," said one EU diplomat.

It also helps to have a carrot. The Union is uniquely well-equipped to ease the situation with its ability to bring Macedonia closer to the EU by building on the Stability and Association Agreement due to be signed next week.

Arben Xhaferi, one of the leaders of the ethnic Albanian parties in the ruling coalition, emphasised the importance of the EU's involvement. "Troops and weapons did not stop the violence," he said. "What did was the hope provided by the EU that it would intervene in starting political negotiations."

But it was quite clear that the US was happy to see the Europeans finally referee a backyard dogfight without help from across the Atlantic. Washington always harks back to the start of the trouble in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, when member states' failure to speak with a single voice crippled the Union's ability to tackle the problems without US assistance - however hesitant and late it may have been.

And, as the recent US decision to withdraw tanks and heavy weapons from Bosnia shows, the new administration will gladly relocate its military resources if it sees the Union sharing the burden.

As if to illustrate this point, at this week's meeting between NATO ambassadors and top EU political and security officials, the alliance praised Solana's role in brokering a deal in Macedonia.

The Bush administration's stance in the Middle East has also finally given Solana and his fellow EU diplomats a bigger role in helping the Israelis and Palestinians to find an acceptable solution. Bush has made it clear that his team will take a more hands-off approach to the conflict compared to Clinton. In an early move he withdrew his predecessor's special envoy to the region, Dennis Ross.

More significantly, Bush's recent call on Arafat to speak out against Arab violence in Israel, and the US veto of a United Nations plan to send observers to the region, has convinced the Palestinians that the Texan is taking Ariel Sharon's side.

Of greater importance, the Israelis, who usually accuse the EU of bias towards the Palestinians, seem to trust Solana as an even-handed arbitrator. He is part of the fact-finding mission investigating the events leading to the outbreak of violence last year and finding ways of preventing future ones.

Israel's ambassador to the EU, Harry Kney-Tal, said this week that Solana understands the Israeli position, although he repeated his country's line that the Union should not try to speak on behalf of the two parties. "You have to create conditions for parties to come together. The contribution of Europe should be to facilitate this process," he argued.

EU leaders have given Solana responsibility for injecting new life into the peace process, asking him in Stockholm to come up with a road map of confidence measures for the sides to try and restart negotiations.

But despite the impression that the Union can match US diplomatic influence in the region, it is clear that Washington's relationship with Israel means a final deal will only be reached if the US puts enough pressure on the parties to make difficult concessions.

It is perhaps Bush's decision to withdraw from diplomatic efforts to promote reconciliation between the two Koreas that has simultaneously raised hopes of a bigger global role for the EU and exposed the practical limits of its ambitions.

Bush has cited concern about Pyongyang's commitment to external verification of its missile programme as reason for abandoning Clinton's active engagement in the region. This has left the door open to the Union, in the form of Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson, to visit the two states early next month to try and keep the process alive.

Steve Everts, a researcher on EU-US relations at the Centre for European Reform in London, argues that the Bush position is a major policy-minus compared with his predecessor. "Korea is definitely 1-0 for Clinton versus Bush," he said.

Diplomats believe the US stance on North Korea has less to do with a well-thought out strategic shift and more to do with Bush not yet appointing all the second-rank policy experts he needs for the massive review of Clinton's legacy in the foreign relations field. In this light, Everts believes that the Union should be careful not to overestimate what it can achieve in the region.

"The main role of the Europeans should be to keep negotiations going and to impress Bush that he needs to develop an engagement policy," he said.

Meanwhile, Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, has welcomed the EU's involvement in the region while ironically asking the Europeans when they would start stationing troops along North and South Korea's demilitarised zone to replace US forces there.

There is more irony. The Union has sought for a decade to assert a more coherent and effective foreign policy, but it may be Bush who finally gives it a chance to move up one rank in the world diplomatic order.

Major feature. The European Union is increasingly taking centre stage as a serious foreign policy player while the US administration rethinks its strategic priorities.

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