European Diplomacy’s First Test

It took eight years of ill-tempered political wrangling to create the European Union’s new diplomatic service, but its fate – and that of its chief, Catherine Ashton – may well be decided over the next few weeks. The Union’s failure so far to respond adequately to the crisis engulfing the Arab world is sharpening knives in foreign ministries across Europe.

From the EU’s point of view, the turmoil engulfing the Arab world couldn’t have come at a worse time. The European External Action Service (EEAS), which is meant to enable the EU “to speak with one voice,” was launched only at the end of 2010 and many senior positions remain unfilled. But that is a poor excuse for the EU’s inability to put its stamp on the crisis.

Few know better than the Eurocrats of Brussels that the unrest now sweeping across Arab countries was only a matter of time in coming. Back in the 1990’s, EU officials, prompted by Spain, Italy, and France, began to shape a Mediterranean strategy to stimulate trade and investment in the Arab world. Europe already feared that rising youth unemployment in the region would create dangerous instability along Europe’s southern flank.

Known as the “Barcelona process,” this initiative proved weak and ineffective, because much of its funding was diverted to Eastern Europe for the EU’s ambitious enlargement drive. Recently, there have been efforts to revive the strategy by renaming it the Union for the Mediterranean, but still with little concrete achievement.

In stark contrast to the way that former Soviet-bloc countries have been drawn into the European economy, Arab countries have received little help from the EU, despite the huge challenges they face. Europe’s selfish agricultural policies aggravate poverty in North Africa and the Middle East, where the population doubled to 350 million during the last 30 years and is forecast to more than double again by 2030. Europe’s governments are now much criticized for propping up autocratic Arab regimes, but their real failure has been one of omission: the lack of economic cooperation and development assistance offered to the region.

In the past, there was talk in Brussels of helping Arab countries to develop closer mutual trade links. Yet they remain islands of underdevelopment – less than 2% of the five Maghreb countries’ trade is with one another, and much the same is true of the eastern Mediterranean countries of the Mashreq and of the Gulf states. A determined EU effort to counter Arab fragmentation and tackle problems ranging from acute water scarcity to poor education would pay rich dividends.

Indeed, Europe has much to offer the Arab world as it emerges from its political and economic stagnation, but it needs to do so loudly and clearly under the banner of EU leadership. And that, unfortunately, has been in short supply.

The focus has been on Europe’s response to the events that began in Tunisia and have since led to the fall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, unrest in Bahrain and Yemen, and now civil conflict in Libya. The European Council, which groups EU heads of government, met in Brussels on March 11, but agreed only to call for Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s resignation. No wider plan for encouraging Arab countries to embrace democracy was mooted, still less one that would make EU economic cooperation conditional on political reform.

Baroness Ashton’s voice at the recent European Council was characteristically muted. She has so far visited Tunisia and Egypt without declaring an EU policy position that commanded attention. It has been French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and British Prime Minister David Cameron who have vied for the limelight, leaving Ashton in the shadows. Her style since arriving in Brussels as the EU’s foreign-policy chief has been distinctly unassuming, but that does not mean that she cannot now show her mettle and seize the initiative.

The question of intervening in Libya with a no-fly zone has divided EU leaders, and the Arab League’s decision to back it means that it will have to be taken up by NATO, along with the United Nations. But the EU can make a much more positive and important contribution to the Arab awakening by launching an economic strategy along the lines laid out by Italy’s foreign minister, Franco Frattini, and Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg.

Ashton’s EEAS could have established a clear lead at a much earlier stage by responding publicly to the spreading Arab unrest. It would have been a good idea, for example, to send EEAS observers to selected countries to assess their political mood and economic needs. But it is certainly not too late to set out a determined new plan for Euro-Arab cooperation.

That will not happen if Baroness Ashton remains a low-profile operator. In that case, the EEAS itself could become a casualty of events. It won’t die of course, as international bureaucracies seldom do, but it risks becoming irrelevant, thus robbing Europe of its global voice.

Giles Merritt, editor of Europe's World and heads the Brussels-based think tanks Friends of Europe and Security & Defense Agenda.

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