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Is the EU weaker or stronger after the Iraqi Crisis?

By Wolfgang Bücherl

28.05.2003 · TIESweb


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The Iraq crisis served as magnifying glass, making visible fundamental differences inside the EU and revealing the weaknesses of its foreign policy making.

1. Obviously there are differences among the member states over basic principles in international relations. To name just two: The use of force and Europe's relationship with the US. Despite the Foreign Affairs Council's efforts to define the use of force as a measure of last resort, the interpretations of such a formula diverged greatly. The fact that some member states supported the Iraq war - be it actively or through logistical or political support - while others opposed it, tells a story of its own. Similarly in transatlantic relations: While for some Member States one reason for siding with the US was to prevent a chasm in the transatlantic alliance, others did not accept this argument. There seem to be differing concepts of "the West" prevailing in the minds of European leaders. While some are willing to accept a unipolar West with the US as the leading power; others would like to achieve a bipolar West with the EU as a counterweight to America.

2. It was additionally revealed that at times of crisis some member states do not seem to be ready, nor willing, to create common positions on such vital issues. Considerations of domestic politics or national foreign policy strategy superseded the quest for a common approach inside the CFSP-framework. This fact hints at weaknesses in the Treaty provisions. Obviously the common institutions did not seem to enjoy the necessary respect among member states in order to be considered as the prime means of consultation, and they did not seem to have the means to convince member states to use them as prime forums for consultation and decision-making. This may be in part linked to the perception among the member states, who feel that dealing with the crisis inside the EU framework was too sluggish in order to keep the pace with the sheer speed of events.

3. The EU could not integrate its members, nor the accession candidates into a wider European consensus. Although the accession countries in Central and Eastern Europe are not yet members of the Union, their stance in the Iraqi crisis did matter, as it made the fracturing of Europe more evident. In this regard the crisis provided a taste of the difficulties of consensus-building and common decision making in CFSP in an enlarged EU.

So, if we take into account theses factors - has the Union become weaker?

Currently the EU's prestige appears weakened since its shortfalls have surfaced. It has also become apparent that European integration is not out of the woods in the field of CFSP. There is the risk of a "roll-back" that could make European foreign policy irrelevant.

Furthermore, the credibility of the EU as a unified actor has been weakened. The fact that member states made only scant use of the EU framework in the crisis undermined their commitment of making the Union a strong international actor. It neither increased the acceptance of the CFSP's crisis management on Iraq in the world nor among the citizens of the EU.

However, these weaknesses do not necessarily have to continue into the future. The history of European integration shows that crises sometimes had a positive long-term effect. They can create a momentum for change and trigger the willingness among the member states and institutions to undertake reforms in order to better prepare the Union for future crises.

Therefore, CFSP/ESDP has entered a crucial stage. This coincides with the Convention's proposals for a strengthening of CFSP and ESDP, and the initiative on the part of Belgium, France, Germany and Luxembourg to deepen integration in security and defense policy.

Keeping the EU's weaknesses in consideration, the future efforts to strengthen the Union as a foreign policy actor should center around the following aspects:

1. The Union has to conduct a dialogue about its basic principles in international relations. Such a dialogue should in particular refer to the use of force in international relations and also to the EU's relations with the US and with NATO. This should be channeled into a dialogue on a comprehensive strategic concept for the EU, that should encompass the goals and instruments of CFSP. It should particularly outline the conditions of use of the various instruments, that the EU has at hand in the context of CFSP/ESDP. High Commissioner for CFSP, Javier Solana, has been given the task of presenting a global foreign policy strategy of the EU by June, that could become the basis of a broader dialogue.

2. The Union also needs to ensure that national foreign policies are better coordinated in its institutions and to empower its institutions to react more quickly. The Convention proposal of creating a European Minister of Foreign Affairs - that has been issued earlier in a similar fashion by other actors such as the Commission or various think-tanks - is a step in the right direction. The merger of the positions of the High Representative for CFSP with the Commissioner for External Relations could aid in further improving the coordination between the Council and the Commission. There should also be a formal Council of Defense Ministers in order to reflect the growing importance of ESDP inside the wider CFSP framework. Also, there should be provisions in the Treaties for ad-hoc meetings of the European Council in order to enable the Union to react more rapidly to international developments.

3. Finally, the Union needs to find ways of improving its consensus building and decision making processes in an enlarged EU. A possible way of achieving this goal would be to extend the use of qualified majority voting to all non-military fields of CFSP. Another way would be to allow for enhanced cooperation in foreign and defense issues among member states. However, this should be kept under the provision that such cooperation shall always remain open to all-round participation of member states and it should be conceived as a platform on which member states can participate when they deem themselves ready.

With the adjourning of the Convention this summer and the start of the Intergovernmental Conference, the coming months shall mark a crucial time. It is after this watershed that one will once again be faced with the question of whether the EU had been strengthened or weakened by the Iraqi crisis.


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