Thursday, May 13, 2004

Dithering on the edges

The United States accounts for only one percent of Syrian exports, and US companies supply a mere five percent of imports to this country, accounting for a mere $300 million. By contrast, almost 60 percent of Syria’s trade is conducted with EU member states, of which the larger part is with France.

Guess, therefore, which country has just imposed economic sanctions on Syria, and which trading bloc has opposed the sanctions, led by which country?

There are no prizes, of course, for answering such childishly easy questions, but once again the current situation in Syria demonstrates that foreign policy and trade are intimate partners, the one conducted in the service of the other.

Thus, while the US – with minimal economic interests in the country - is racking up the ante by imposing sanctions on Syria for its record in supporting terrorism, the EU, very much guided by France, takes a wholly different view.

Far from backing the US in its world-wide crusade against terrorism, the EU’s Energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio is heading to Damascus on Sunday to discuss connecting Syria to Europe’s energy market and developing the region’s oil, gas, electricity and transport sectors.

In contrast to the hard line policy of the US, the EU is insisting on maintaining a policy of “constructive engagement” with Syria and is seeking to bring it fully into an existing trade bloc with Mediterranean rim nations.

Bang in the middle, however, is Britain, which “shares America's concerns”. Blair wants to pursue a policy of "critical and constructive engagement", but he also wants “stronger commitments” from Syria in denouncing nuclear weapons programmes and weapons of mass destruction – which Syria has refused.

There lies a graphic illustration of the conflict at the heart of the EU’s common foreign policy. As long as French interests are involved, the policy will be tilted in favour of France, while Britain will remain torn between its “solidarity” with its EU “partners” and loyalty to its trans-Atlantic relationships – dithering on the edges of both.

Need there be any better example of why, for Britain, a common EU foreign policy can never work?

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