Frustrated EU governments are starting to speak out
more bluntly about the violence in the Middle East -
and America's failure to intervene, Ian Black reports
Spain's foreign minister, Josep Pique, did not mince
his words this week when he led his European Union
colleagues in issuing a stern reminder that they were
deeply worried about the deteriorating situation in
Middle East - and American policy towards it.
Just a month into his country's turn at the helm of
the union's rotating presidency, the suave Catalan
drew up a sharp statement observing that, if the
bloody, escalating conflict in Europe's backyard was
going to be controlled, Israelis and Palestinians
urgently needed to get back to the negotiating table.
Yasser Arafat, the EU ministers declared, was a
partner who was needed to control terrorism and talk
peace - neither of which he could easily do under
siege by Israeli tanks in the West Bank town of
The Americans, by contrast, seemed to be backing the
argument of the hawkish Israeli prime minister, Ariel
Sharon: that the time had come for the veteran
Palestinian leader - unable or unwilling to stop a
spate of horrific suicide bombings against Israeli
civilians - to step down.
Anna Lindh, Pique's feisty Swedish colleague, called
it "just madness" for Washington to suggest it would
sever relations with Arafat, scorned as behaving in a
"mafia-like" way by Anthony Zinni, the US envoy to the
region. No diplomatic niceties there.
And not many either when the Europeans sent a
strongly-worded note to the Israelis, "reserving the
right" to demand reparations for damage done to
EU-funded infrastructure projects in the Palestinian
territories. Or when Pique "deplored" Sharon's public
regret that Arafat had not been killed when he was
briefly in an Israeli sniper's sights during the siege
of Beirut in 1982.
It was thus hard to conceal the widening transatlantic
divergence over the world's most intractable conflict,
in which the EU has worked hard and paid generously to
carve out a role but so far failed to wield much
That has made it all the more frustrating for the
Europeans that the US president, George Bush, has
refused to use America's far greater leverage to press
the Jewish state to revive the long-stalled Oslo peace
talks with the Palestinians.
September 11 had briefly seemed to change that. Under
pressure from Tony Blair, Bush listened to his more
cool-headed advisers and built a broad international
coalition instead of lashing out after the suicide
attacks. Re-engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian
dispute, widely seen as one of the root causes of
Muslim resentment of the US and the west, suddenly
seemed on the agenda.
Bush did pay lip service to the idea of Palestinian
self-determination, but quickly disappointed those who
hoped he would go further. With the military campaign
in Afghanistan effectively won without the collective
help of America's Nato European allies, so called
"continental drift" seemed to be resuming.
Instead of the cooperative multilateralism the EU
wants, the US was standing back from the bloodshed in
Gaza and Jerusalem and again picking and choosing the
policies - and enemies - that suited it. And in a way
that made many Europeans squirm.
No more so then when they listened to Bush's state of
the union address this week, when he described three
countries - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - as forming an
"axis of evil" which posed a growing threat to the US
because of their support for terrorism and their
efforts to build or acquire weapons of mass
Pique and his EU colleagues were privately dismayed:
Iraq has divided Europe from America for a decade,
with only Britain loyally participating in airborne
patrols over the country's "no-fly zones," while
France has led the campaign to end sanctions and
resume lucrative oil contracts.
No surprise then that it was Alan Richard, the French
defence minister, who spoke out first, hinting at a
backlash if Washington attacked Iraq to topple Saddam
"Whatever the outcome," he warned, "the United States
would have to weigh possible changes in its alignments
with many other countries."
Bush's comments on Iran also posed a difficulty for
the EU, which has tried hard to shore up the moderate
reformist regime of the president, Mohamed Khatami,
against clerical hardliners and is now looking at
signing a fully-fledged trade and cooperation
EU ministers, including Britain's Jack Straw, flew to
Tehran after September 11 to enlist its support in the
war against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban - though
they were troubled by an Iranian arms shipment
destined for the Palestinian and intercepted by Israel
earlier this month.
Similarly, the EU has sought to actively engage North
Korea's isolated and impoverished "hermit kingdom,"
complementing the policy initiated by the Clinton
administration but abandoned when Bush took office.
"In this globalised world," said Javier Solana, the
union's foreign policy supremo, in a mild but
unmistakable rebuke to the White House,
"coalition-building and consensus-building are
Europeans have been left wondering what to do. Spain's
response, the prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar,
explained to visiting Brussels-based correspondents,
is this: if Washington cannot stop the unrelenting
violence in the Middle East, the EU will not fill the
void by a high-profile attempt to get Israel and the
Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
"We take a dim view of the Middle East situation,"
said the Spanish conservative, but he argued that
conditions were simply not right for a repeat of the
dramatic Madrid conference of 1991, which two years
later led to the Oslo breakthrough.
It is all a depressing reminder that the EU of 2002
may be an economic giant with its own currency and
ambitious plans to enlarge; but that its search for an
effective global role will be a long and difficult
one. And that it still plays second fiddle to a truly