26th Jan 2021

Gaza war shines spotlight on EU foreign policy

The ongoing conflict in the Middle East has served to underline weaknesses in EU foreign policy, something that some analysts say will not necessarily be fixed by the bloc's planned new treaty.

As the Israeli attacks on the Gaza strip intensified, so too did the number of EU people on mission to the region.

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At one stage, Israeli President Shimon Peres had an array of European interlocutors, including three EU foreign ministers, the EU external relations commissioner and the EU's foreign policy chief.

In addition, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was in the area in an unofficial capacity, but was working on a high-profile solution to the conflict.

As the crisis continues, with hundreds of Palestinians already dead, the EU's response has exposed the difficulty it has in being taken seriously in the Middle East in particular and, generally, in responding conclusively to politically-charged crises.

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact the Israeli military strikes began under the French Presidency of the EU - which has international diplomatic clout - and continued under the Czech Presidency of the EU, which lacks the same resources.

Commenting on Mr Sarkozy's unilateral efforts to resolve the crisis, Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini said: "When everyone conducts one's own mission, it weakens our strategic position."

The messy response has prompted some questions about whether the Lisbon Treaty can salvage Europe's credibility in foreign policy.

The new set of rules foresees a permanent president of the European Council, instead of the current six-monthly rotation between the 27 member states ranging from tiny Malta and Luxembourg to heavyweights Germany, France and the UK.

It also introduces an EU foreign minister, which supporters of the treaty say will put an end to the merry-go-round in foreign policy.

The EU's reponse in the Middle East "shows the need for the Treaty of Lisbon and especially the solutions it offers with the president of the European Council and the EU foreign minister," German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok told this website.

He stressed the importance of the people concerned in such situations "all calling the same person [in the EU]."

Commenting on the fact that the EU had two delegations in the Middle East at the same time, Clara O'Donnell, foreign policy expert at the London-based Centre for European Reform, said:

"The EU is not taken credibly anyway ... and when it does things like that, it does not help."

She suggested that the Lisbon treaty will only be an improvement "if certain conditions are fulfilled" including sorting out the job description of both the foreign minister and the EU president so there is no bickering between the two.

Having a "serious actor" as a foreign minister is "really essential" she said, adding: "of course, it remains to be seen if member states will really put themselves behind this foreign minister."

Antonio Missiroli, director of the European Policy Centre think-tank, also believes the treaty may create new problems in the area of foreign policy, noting that "the division of labour" between its top players is not clear.

Large country dominance

The discrepancy between the high profile Sarkozy presidency and the current Czech one has prompted speculation that the EU has to be led by politicians from big countries in order to be effective.

"If you send someone as a spokesperson that people in foreign countries have never heard of, that is not going to help the EU's credibility," said Ms O'Donnell, suggesting that someone such as UK ex-prime minister Tony Blair - whose name has often been touted for the EU president post - would have the necessary political weight to do the job.

A seasoned EU commentator said that the Sarkozy stint at the EU helm has made it "very difficult" to imagine anyone other than a big country politician in the EU president post.

However, others say that it is dangerous to make this assumption. A diplomat from a small EU country said: "I can see why this is a seductive argument but it is wrong. We simply have to pick a competent person for the job and not just someone based on the size of the country."

Elmar Brok also cautioned against this tendency. "If the person is elected for a longer time, then the size of the country will not have such importance."

"The equality of all member states should not be forgotten," he warned.

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