The one thing that is not in any doubt in the entire mess of 15 British sailors and marines being captured or, more correctly, kidnapped by the Iranians is that the European Union has not distinguished itself. Far from being a bulwark of strength, it has done little more than mentioned how nasty the Iranians are, refusing to “flex its economic muscles” as Timothy Garton Ash, the leading “perestroika” Europhile of this country sadly concludes in the Los Angeles Times.
Europe, he notes, has not even realized there is a crisis. Well, possibly because it is not their crisis. (Why the British government has not realized there is a crisis is something else.)
The EU is by far Iran's biggest trading partner — more than 40% of Iran's imports and more than a quarter of its exports are with the EU. Remarkably, this trade has grown strongly in the last years of looming crisis. Much of it is underpinned by export credit guarantees given by European governments, notably those of Germany, France and Italy. According to the most recent figures available from the German economics ministry, Iran is Germany's third-largest beneficiary of export credit guarantees, outdone only by Russia and China. Iran comes second to none in terms of the proportion of German exports — up to 65% — underwritten by the German government. As the squeeze grows on Iran from U.N. sanctions, and as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fails to deliver on his populist economic promises, this European trade becomes ever more vital for the Iranian regime.Well, we know the answer to that and sad though it makes me to watch Professor Garton Ash sobbing his heart out, I suggest it is time that he took some kind of a reality check. Why in goodness name should the Europeans do anything to help the British if they cannot see that the war the terrorists, armed, trained and funded by Iran, are waging is a war against us all?
In the House of Commons earlier this week, a former foreign secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, asked if Britain's European friends, and Germany, France and Italy in particular, might be prevailed on to convey to Iran, perhaps privately in the first instance, the possibility that such export credit guarantees would be temporarily suspended until the kidnapped Europeans are freed. I gather that if such private pressure is not forthcoming, Britain might be tempted to raise the suggestion more formally at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Bremen this weekend.
So here's a challenge for the German presidency of the EU. Will you put your money where your mouth is? Or are all your Sunday speeches about European solidarity in the cause of peace and freedom not even worth the paper they are written on?
Another serious Europhile has been sobbing into his cups this week-end. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has gone beyond speaking in the Commons. In this week’s Observer he has noted sadly that “Europe has failed us in the Iran crisis”.
There was, however, one other approach that would have a good chance of succeeding. The members of the EU aspire to having a common foreign policy. What better issue could there be on which our French, German and Italian allies and partners could show solidarity with the UK and demonstrate the benefits of joint action?Indeed. But, of course, that is not how the European Union views such crises. A crisis is not there to be solved, it is there to be utilized ex post facto in the great project for further integration. After all, exactly what does a common foreign policy mean among 27 countries who have no common interests?
The best means of pressure would have been the export credit guarantees that are given to assist trade between Iran and western Europe. These, together with banking and other financial facilities are the soft underbelly of the Iranians and their withdrawal could do significant damage to Iran's already weak economy.
Such measures have already been canvassed by the Americans in respect of Iran's nuclear defiance.
The firm statement made by EU foreign ministers calling for the 'immediate and unconditional' release is welcome. But the apparent lack of any agreement over economic pressure has two serious consequences. First, it makes it very unlikely that Britain will be able to secure the release of the service personnel in the short term. Second, it is now almost inevitable that Iran will try to impose conditions from the international community and, in particular, the US, on their ultimate release.
This lack of agreement shows how hollow are the aspirations to a common European foreign policy. France and Germany should be ashamed at their refusal to assist their European partner in a humanitarian cause of this kind. If there had been a political will, there could already have been agreement.
Meanwhile Ségolène Royal has continued to make tough statements about Iran and has insisted that there should be European sanctions on Iran until the sailors are released. Her chief rival, Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed himself horrified but did not actually manage to suggest any course of action.
Our readers will be glad to hear that the European Foreign Policy Supremo, Javier Solana takes a more sanguine view of the situation as a whole.
In his overview of the European Union’s foreign policy in 2007 to the European Parliament, Solana identified various issues as likely to cause problems: Arab-Israeli dispute, Darfur, Iranian nuclear stand-off and Kosovo. He condemned the seizure of the 15 British marines and then announced
that there was "major desire" around the world for a strong EU foreign policy and reminded them that the EU has 10 international military missions and plans more in Afghanistan and Kosovo. Later in the debate Joseph Daul of the European People's Party took up this theme when he said that EU foreign policy should encourage freedom around the world.It is not entirely clear how that “major desire around the world” is expressed as most commentators either have no idea that such a thing is possible or express some puzzlement at its failure to do anything whenever there is a crisis. No amount of international missions will make up for a complete lack of purpose, encouraging freedom around the world not being particularly high on anybody’s agenda in the European Union. Especially not the freedom of 15 British captives in Iran.
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