Saturday, September 10, 2005

A confusion of summits

To be honest, the first place I would expect to find comment on the European Union is not the West Bengal Statesman. Least still would I expect it to be written by Kirsty Hughes. She seems to be the former European director at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, now working for Open Democracy, having reinvented herself as a far-eastern expert.

Anyhow, if it is the same person, our Kirsty is not exactly being overwhelmingly kind about the former object of her affection, declaring that the EU will never be taken seriously as a foreign policy player until it first gets its own house in order.

This is in the wake of the "whirlwind tour" by Tony Blair Esq. "He jetted in from China to Delhi on Tuesday evening this week to head two back-to-back summits in Delhi — first as the current head of the EU presidency at the EU-India summit on Wednesday, then as British Premier at the UK-India summit on Thursday," writes Mz Hughes. "Indian observers, not always entirely sure (with good reason) if the UK is a full or partial member of the European Union, may be forgiven for being a little confused."

"Since the UK is indeed a full member of the EU," she then asks, "why the need to distract time and attention from the strategic summit between the EU and India?"

This is an especially pertinent question as British and Indian newspapers tended to focus headlines and photos on Blair’s pronouncements and talks, leaving the EU itself rather in the shadows. His action, recounts Mz Hughes, led an "unimpressed Brussels EU official" to say: "it is unusual to follow up an EU summit with a national summit the next day, but then party conference time is coming up (in the UK)".

But Mz Hughes notes that "this confusion of summits reflects a twin schizophrenia" - of British attitudes towards the EU, and of EU attitudes towards building a genuine common European foreign policy. She contrasts the enthusiasm for the EU when New Labour came to power in 1997 with the current hostility to the concept of a political Europe.

Then she also argues that the British also hate to be left out: they want both the right to opt out of EU policies they don't like (such as the euro) but they also want to be a major influential power at the heart of Europe: "Hence the twin European summits in Delhi: first milk the British presidency of the EU for all its worth, but then remind both India and European colleagues that the UK has an important, separate relationship with India."

Not all was sweetness and light though. One senior European diplomat in Delhi observed with wry satisfaction that, as the current presidency of the EU, the British High Commission in Delhi was finally obliged to have a second flagpole to fly the EU flag alongside the national flag, something regarded as normal by other EU embassies. Hughes then continues:

But while the UK is notoriously sceptical about the EU as a political body, the rest of the EU has to face up to its own schizophrenia over EU foreign policy. European leaders — and bureaucrats — love to attend grand-sounding strategic summits whether in Delhi, Beijing or Washington. But with the significant exception of trade, the high flown rhetoric of these summits tend to conceal the fact that the main outcomes are usually action plans for officials to implement. These plans may promote worthy goals — from encouraging civil society to interact, to co-operation on research and development, or general dialogues on the environment. But anyone who thinks that EU political and diplomatic relations with Delhi, Moscow, or Beijing are more important than bilateral ties from London, Paris and Berlin has not been paying attention. The serious stuff of high level global politics is not — yet at least — in EU hands.
She observes that "Europe's most successful common foreign policy has been a regional one — expanding its membership to surrounding countries, most recently to some of the former Soviet bloc — and so underpinning peace, democracy and economic development" – debatable, but there you go – but then goes on to say that even this policy is in trouble, over Turkey.

With that and the failure of the Union to come to terms with "the stark rejection of its draft constitution by French and Dutch voters" leaves the EU with a political legitimacy crisis. "It is this wider political crisis that the EU’s leaders will have to solve first," writes Hughes, "if they want later to develop a strong effective foreign policy — and not be upstaged at their own summits by the Prime Minister of one single member state."

She concludes that some EU officials and diplomats in Delhi lament the fact that the EU has a low profile in India, and that Indian diplomats and officials tend to place contacts to bilateral embassies ahead of those to the EU presidency or the European Commission’s office. But, faced with the tale of two summits, this should not be a surprise. The EU will be taken seriously as a foreign policy player — and not just as a trade bloc — when it gets its own house in order. But not before.

Agree or disagree, the commentary is interesting. Despite its ambitions and its determination to ignore the setback of the referendums, this is one of many indications that the EU has suffered a grievous blow, and things are not going as well as it might hope.

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