The stability pact was originally concocted by the French prime minister, Edouard Balladur, more than a year ago. At the beginning, it was just a half-baked device which allowed a new right-wing French administration to put its stamp on the country's foreign policy, hitherto assumed to be the exclusive preserve of its Socialist president. Mr Balladur's initial plan was based on the simple observation that former Communist states are beset by potential ethnic and territorial disputes and that, although most have expressed an interest in joining the European Union, their readiness to co-operate among themselves was noticeable by its absence. In an attempt to dissociate the Union from the Yugoslav debacle, the Balladur plan suggested establishing a network of treaties between the East Europeans, all intended to settle their bilateral problems and thereby prevent future violence. So far, so good, but hardly profound or even convincing.
The French had a credibility problem in Eastern Europe which the Balladur plan did little to dispel. Widely perceived to be against a continued American military presence on the Continent and opposed to the speedy eastward expansion of either the Union or Nato, the French lost one diplomatic battle after another in the dying days of their former Socialist administration. President Mitterrand's proposal for a European 'confederation', a recycled Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, was greeted with irritation and a highly embarrassing public rebuke from the Czech president, Vaclav Havel.
But there was worse. Balladur's original proposal envisaged the possibility of 'minor' frontier adjustments, a horrifying prospect for many East European states and an idea which, interestingly, was also rejected by the Hungarians, the nation traditionally thought to have most to gain from any border revisions. Furthermore, the French were initially vague about US participation in the plan, so heightening suspicions that their main aim was still to drive a wedge between Washington and the Europeans. Finally, the implication that, once the East Europeans had concluded bilateral treaties, these could be upheld by Brussels raised the spectre of security guarantees of the worst kind: ones given by an institution - the EU - that still has none of the necessary military instruments.
Much of the criticism was unfair. Balladur did not advocate territorial revision; he merely wanted the possibility of frontier adjustments kept under review, should it be contemplated by the negotiating parties themselves - a principle that already exists in international law. Moreover, the French never suggested that, in return for signing stability treaties, the East Europeans would be offered security guarantees. Nevertheless, the mere mention of this possibility elicited universal criticism, an indication of just how little the French thought through the implications of their ideas.
Unabashed, however, Balladur applied the approach that has by now become his trademark: dogged determination, coupled with occasional pragmatism. And he was helped by the British who, though harbouring grave reservations about the proposal, did everything possible to accommodate him. A team comprising the brighter bureaucrats in the European Commission in Brussels ultimately ironed out the differences and the Americans were kept informed. The result was the stability pact, adopted by the Union weeks before Nato's summit stole the limelight.
Gone are all implicit references to the possibility of territorial revision, security guarantees, or conditions for eventual EU membership. Instead, the pact envisages a process of consultation, bilateral and multilateral, starting with a summit in Paris this April. After the initial meeting, individual East European governments will be expected to discuss their problems with each other, with the Union standing ready to help when required. Further, since the process is an exercise in preventing future, not existing wars, the republics of former Yugoslavia are to be excluded.
Although no final list of countries concerned has been provided, it is clear that the process will involve primarily the six countries of Central and Eastern Europe that have signed a treaty of association with the Union, but it will also involve some neighbouring countries, the Baltic republics, the US and international institutions with a direct stake in the proceedings. The loose supervision of the treaties that may ensue will be left to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe, so avoiding the need to create new institutions. So far, so good, but hardly relevant.
Despite all protestations to the contrary, the plan still regards East Europeans as novices, people who must be taught how to eat with a knife and fork at a Western table. The Paris conference does not intend to discuss Northern Ireland, the Basque country or Corsica; all these problems are supposedly of a different order from the difficulties of the Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians or Bulgarians. For years, France has scuppered all attempts to define an international system to protect ethnic minorities; only last November four Muslim French girls who dared arrive for school wearing headscarves were suspended from classes until they abandoned their religious custom, an event that would have been roundly condemned in any East European country. The East Europeans are therefore expected to discuss minority protection and rights for special groups that few Western countries are willing to accept.
In one aspect, too, the planned Paris conference is reinventing the wheel: most of those participating from the East already have friendship treaties with all their neighbours, and not every East European state has the same problem: Poland and the Czech Republic, for instance, are relatively homogenous states, while Hungary's ethnic difficulty is with its kinsmen abroad.
In keeping with its bureaucratic traditions, the European Union decreed that it should have a common foreign and security policy before anyone ascertained whether its members actually had joint foreign and security interests. The stability pact is now touted as evidence of how the EU can act in unison. In practice, it will result in just another set of anodyne statements distinguished only by their irrelevance.
The biggest contribution that the EU could make is not to help the East Europeans to draft new treaties or 'identify' problems that everyone already knows exist, but to open up its markets to East European products, thereby giving them a realistic prospect of full membership of the Union.
But nothing of the kind is happening. The East Europeans, for instance, have reduced their steel production by half over the last 10 years, while the EU members have increased theirs by 20 per cent. Yet the East Europeans are now accused of 'dumping' steel on EU markets and have incurred punitive tariffs. While the forthcoming Paris conference is to discuss high principles, the bureaucrats in Brussels continue with their quotas on apples or beans. Never mind the facts; just feel the vision: this is the European Union message.
Nevertheless, the mood is changing. Nato's latest summit opened up the possibility of military action by European states, using the assets of the alliance without direct US involvement on each occasion. Many details still have to be defined, but this would give France the opportunity to draw closer to Nato and defuse the demarcation disputes that have paralysed Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The meeting which took place in London yesterday between the French, German and British defence ministers is one step in this direction. Once the West's internal disputes abate, it would be possible to take a serious look at Eastern Europe's wider security needs as well. Paradoxically, the stability pact that Balladur originally launched in order to gain some control over President Mitterrand's foreign policy has now become an irrelevance, a diversion that Mitterrand can host while serious decisions about the Continent are taken elsewhere.
And the EU's foreign and security policy? It is, as the bureaucrats say, still 'evolving'.
The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.