Adrian Hamilton: The depressing drift of Europe's foreign policy

It is to Blair's eternal discredit that Britain made such half-hearted objections to Guantanamo
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The Independent Online

Aside from the issue of Guantanamo Bay, relations between the European Union and the US have probably never been better. Which says something about European attitudes in the Vienna summit between President Bush and EU officials yesterday.

Guantanamo is a continuing sore, but it is sore not because EU officials or political leaders have particularly cared about it, but because the European public does. If it had been up to the politicians, Guantanamo, and indeed the rendering of prisoners, would have been quietly ignored by European governments, an embarrassment rather than a scandal. It is to Tony Blair's eternal discredit, and that of his Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, that Britain made such half-hearted objections to Guantanamo, even when it concerned the incarceration of our own citizens and residents. When it came to it, it was Angela Merkel who finally raised the subject publicly, on a visit to the White House this year, never Tony Blair in all his trips.

But the public does care about it, partly for the sheer iniquity of imprisoning people without trial in a camp deliberately picked to be outside the law, but also for all that it represents in terms of the approach of the Bush administration to the war on terror. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the rendering of prisoners for torture in third countries - these stand as shameful blots on America's reputation, and it is as well that President Bush was reminded of it and the public feeling outside America.

Of course it's easy for Europe to bring it up, as Bush has already proclaimed his desire (but not yet a plan) to close the camp. If only they'd done it before. And if only they'd keep pressing Washington on the question of rendering and the prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone US condoning (if not active encouragement) of the actions of Russia in Chechnya and Egypt, Jordanian and Gulf suppression of opponents in the name of the war on terror.

But Europe isn't doing this. Indeed, over the past couple of years it has actually grown much closer to Washington in its view of Hamas as a terrorist organisation and Iran as a threat to world peace, while tacitly accepting undemocratic regimes such as Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgestan as useful allies.

It's not just the hypocrisy that galls, and looks so bad to other people around the world, nor that it marks such a reversion to old-style Cold War categorisation of countries into those against us or for us. Nor is it an anti-American viewpoint as such (Heaven forbid that we ever confuse Bush for America). It is that Europe has so lost its sense of its own interests in the wider world, and hence of a confident foreign policy of its own. That is partly due to the continuing ambiguity at the heart of the commission, between the role of the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Solana, a former Secretary-General of Nato, is too steeped in the Atlantic alliance to think in separate European terms. Ms Ferrero-Waldner is too much of a lightweight to counterbalance him.

The drift is also due to the top leadership of Europe. So long as Tony Blair is British Prime Minister and Jacques Chirac President of France, there will be no coherent European policy. Blair will always go along with Washington, Chirac will always pursue French interests, in the Middle East as elsewhere. Angela Merkel has brought some ballast but not enough experience to give a unified policy.

Whatever the reasons, the result is anything but an independent policy. Europe has quite distinct interests in the Middle East, because they are our neighbours, in Central Asia, because of the oil and gas pipelines to Europe, in the former Soviet Union, because they form the next points of expansion of Union membership. We are not competitive with the US, but we have different objectives.

Yet here we are with a policy towards Hamas that backs Washington, but bears no relation to our relationship with the Palestinians, or to our experience with ETA or the IRA, in bringing the outsiders into the system. Little could be as ill-considered, or as damaging, as Ms Ferrero-Waldner's statement on Monday, hailing Israel's plans to remove settlements as "courageous", while stating that on no account could EU aid be used by the democratically-elected Hamas government, until the organisation recognised Israel, renounced violence and accepted past agreements. Indeed they should, but If we'd followed that principle of prior concession, we'd still be at war in Northern Ireland.

So too with Iran, where our diplomatic soft-cop/hard-cop act with the US is wrong-headed and largely irrelevant, when we should be using a quite separate approach of inducing Iran into the Barcelona process, and developing alternative gas supplies and pipeline routes from the Caspian.

Worse, while the Foreign Secretaries of Britain, France and Germany have flattered themselves with a false importance in the Middle East, we have let slip a serious policy towards Central Asia, and allowed the engagement with the former Soviet republics in the East to lose impetus. Relations with Turkey have been let slide, just as we needed to renew the drive to membership. So too with the Ukraine and the Baltic countries. Put bluntly, European foreign policy is in a sorry mess, and that ultimately helps the US no more than it does ourselves.